SPOKANE, Wash. - If things had gone differently 7 years ago, 3-year-old Soren might not be here today. And his sister Selah may have had to grow up without her mom Juli.
"I said, 'I'm pretty sure - I'm not having a heart attack because I'm only 37 so I'm probably not having a heart attack but that's what it feels like," Juli remembers. "So we get to the hospital and I waited, even though I said I had some chest pain, we waited quite awhile."
But when she finally saw a doctor 7 years ago, they diagnosed her with bacterial pneumonia. She was told since she was feeling pain down the right side of her body, it couldn't have been a heart attack. Juli was given antibiotics and went on with her life -- until a week later, when the pain struck again.
"I was like, bent over in pain, 'do you guys have any ibuprofen? Oh my goodness,' in the middle of the night. So, trying to stave off a heart attack with ibuprofen at the time," she says.
Another trip to the emergency room and a cardiologist confirmed her suspicions: Juli had two heart attacks in a week at just 37 years old. A doctor told her an elevated level of an enzyme was causing damage to her heart.
"I'm asking, you know, why? And the cardiologist at the time at the hospital said, 'well, usually I'm sitting in front of a man, a 60-year-old man, who's smoked his whole life having this conversation. And you're not, so your cholesterol panel is beautiful, like a teenager's' those are the exact words," she remembers. "'All of the normal markers, so we don't know why, but here's your medicine.' And I was like, 'well what? Is it gonna happen again?"
That uncertainty led her to Dr. Amy Doneen, DNP, at the Heart Attack and Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane. Dr. Doneen pioneered the Bale-Doneen Method, which is a genetically-oriented approach to looking at why people develop vascular disease.
Dr. Doneen found Juli had a condition which elevated levels of a protein which causes vascular inflammation and triples heart attack risk -- a condition which a standard test doesn't check. Juli was also found to be prediabetic. Dr. Doneen says many people who suffer heart attacks see symptoms a month before -- but the symptoms can often be explained away.
"Things like unexplained anxiety, shortness of breath, nausea, unexplained fatigue, and the sad thing is we can justify those symptoms so easily with raising a family, being busy with work," she says.
She says heart disease is the number one cause of death in women -- something that's important for women of all ages to remember.
"[Juli] was asked, 'do you have a family history in your parents of heart disease?,'" Dr. Doneen says. "When Juli had her heart attack her parents were only in their mid 50's, so oftentimes, the manifestation of heart disease hasn't even hit."
There are some ways, she says, to learn of your risks for vascular inflammation and heart disease. She recommends asking your doctor about coronary calcium scans and an ultrasound to look at the walls of your arteries, as well as blood and urine tests to examine inflammation. Some tests are about $100.
Dr. Doneen recommends taking a genetic-based approach.
"What might be best for me might not be best for Juli and vice versa," she says. "Find out what your true risks are. The answers are there. Sometimes it takes the healthcare consumer to ask for them."
The whole experience has taught Juli a valuable lesson she's sure to pass on to her kids.
"We need to guard our heart," she says. "It's where everything flows from."
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