Heart to Heart

July 28, 2002

Heather Heilman

It's unlikely that any woman reading this thinks a super- sized Big Mac combo makes a healthy lunch or that smoking is a harmless and rather glamorous way to control one's appetite. We all know that cholesterol is bad and exercise is good--and that changing lifelong habits can be incredibly hard. A guilt-inducing lecture delivered from on high by a doctor or a super-fit trainer may not do much to help.

Alethia Gauthier will spare you the lecture. She has high blood pressure herself, and she's working to get her weight down. She knows how hard it is to pass up the fried chicken at lunch time--but she also knows why it's worth the sacrifice. Her mother had her first heart attack at the age of 42. Gauthier is a nurse and works as the care coordinator at the Tulane-Xavier National Women's Center of Excellence.

Last year she was chosen by the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses as one of 30 nurses from across the country to receive special training about the risk of cardiovascular disease in women and in how to educate women about their risk.

"The idea was that nurses teach, so we should be bringing this information to as many women as we can," Gauthier said. Since then, she has been offering free, confidential, one-on-one "heart-to-heart chats," in which she helps women assess their risk of heart disease, which they may be surprised to learn is the most common cause of death in women. "A lot of women worry about breast cancer, but cardiovascular disease is much more common," Gauthier said. "Every minute a woman dies of cardiovascular disease."

Another reason women need to be informed about heart disease is that they may be more likely to experience atypical symptoms of a heart attack. Besides the chest pains that are the most common symptom, women may experience nausea, shortness of breath, a general feeling of anxiety, or pain in the back, jaw, or neck. That might be one reason it takes women longer to get treatment when a heart attack starts. Gauthier talks to women about their risk.

If they don't know their cholesterol or their blood pressure, she'll suggest they get a physical. She finds that many women haven't seen a doctor in years, or see only a gynecologist regularly. If a woman is experiencing shortness of breath or something that could be the sign of trouble, Gauthier will walk with her to the clinic to set up an appointment.

The good news is that most of the risk factors of cardiovascular disease are preventable. A woman can't do anything about her age or family history, but she can quit smoking, get some exercise, and control her cholesterol, weight, blood pressure and blood sugar. Of course, that doesn't mean it's easy to do those things. Gauthier talks to women about how to slowly change old habits.

"It's hard to tell someone who's been eating a certain way for 40 years that all of a sudden you have to stop eating that way," she said. "And I don't tell women they have to go to the gym and lift a ton of weights and run on the treadmill for 50 minutes."

Instead, she talks about making gradual shifts in eating habits and working more activity into daily routines. "If you get home and the kids are hyper, you can go outside and play ball with them for 10 minutes. Things like that count," she said. "We need to take the things we have available to us and put more into them and make them count."

To set up a Heart-to-Heart Chat, call 588-5100.

Heather Heilman may be reached at

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