When 19-year-old Naomi Lee woke up one morning in the summer of 2020 with chest pain, she hemmed and hawed about what to do. She, her parents and her siblings were all battling off the flu, so feeling sick was normal, but the pains were new.
Being the height of the pandemic, Lee said she knew the chances of getting a doctor’s appointment were low, but going to the hospital felt “too dramatic.” Still, she and her mom figured it was better to be safe than sorry.
Within hours of arriving at the emergency room, Lee learned she had myocarditis, a rare complication of the flu when the virus attacks a person’s heart. Within days, Lee’s heart stopped beating entirely.
“I was thankfully in the hospital and they were able to put me on life support,” Lee said, reflecting on things two-and-a-half years later.
For a little while, Lee got better and she was able to return home to Coquitlam, but as the summer progressed so did her heart failure.
“Looking back, I didn’t get any in-person appointments because of COVID and when doctors would call I would say I was doing fine because that’s what I wanted to be feeling. I wasn’t able to understand or acknowledge that I was getting worse.”
By September, Lee was back on life support. She had a battery-operated pump implanted into her heart as a sort of last-ditch effort to save it, but in the summer of 2021 she had to get a full transplant.
“Every time I stop and think, I’m just speechless. I have someone else’s heart in my body and that’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.”
Lee said she was in denial for months after her first hospital visit, believing that heart failure was something reserved for old men with canes, like the one pictured on a brochure she’d been given.
“I felt so alone. And I felt like the weird one – who gets heart failure at 19?”
The Heart and Stroke Foundation says few Canadians know that heart disease and strokes are, in fact, the leading cause of premature death for women – taking 32,271 lives in 2019. And, despite the fact that the majority of research has focused solely on men, women are actually at a greater risk of dying from the conditions. In 2019, 20 per cent more women died of heart failure and 32 per cent more women died of stroke than men in Canada, according to Heart and Stroke.
Lee’s symptom of chest pain is what most people associate with heart attacks, but Heart and Stroke says women actually often experience many other lesser known indicators. This can include discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulders, and upper back or belly, shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting.
A general lack of awareness of this among both the public and health professionals means 50 per cent of women who have heart attacks have their symptoms go unrecognized, according to Heart and Stroke. It published a new report outlining the inequities women face in accessing heart and brain health care on Wednesday (Feb. 1), marking the start of Heart Month.
The foundation says it’s committed to increasing women-specific research and training, as well as women’s own understanding of times in their life when they are more at risk, such as during pregnancy or menopause.
Raising awareness is something Lee is also after. She remembered feeling dumb going into the hospital for something as seemingly minor as chest pain, and believes many women are likely deciding not to go for the same reason. Making symptoms more well-known seems to Lee like one simple way to make sure more women get the care they need.
“Maybe a person’s life could be saved.”