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British Columbia

B.C. woman whose heart stopped at 19 looks to spread awareness to others

When 19-year-old Naomi Lee woke up with chest pains one morning in the summer of 2020, she thought about what to do. She, her parents, and her siblings were all battling the flu, so nausea was normal, but the pain was new.

At the height of the pandemic, Lee said she knew the chances of getting a doctor’s appointment were slim, but going to the hospital felt “too dramatic.” Still, she and her mother thought it 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, in which the virus attacks a person’s heart. Within a few days, Lee’s heart stopped beating completely.

“Luckily I was 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 while Lee got better and was able to return home to Coquitlam, but over the summer, so did her heart failure.

“Looking back I didn’t get any in-person appointments because of COVID and if doctors called I would say I’m fine because I wanted to feel like that. I could neither understand nor acknowledge that I was getting worse.”

By September, Lee was back on life support. As a sort of last-ditch effort to save it, she was implanted with a battery-powered pump in her heart, but had to have a full transplant in the summer of 2021.

“Every time I stop and think, I’m speechless. I have someone else’s heart in my body and that’s something I’ll probably never get used to.”

Lee said she was in denial for months after her first hospital visit, believing heart failure was something reserved for old men with canes, as depicted in a pamphlet she was given.

“I felt so alone. And I felt like crazy – who gets heart failure at 19?”

The Heart and Stroke Foundation says few Canadians know that heart disease and stroke are actually the leading cause of premature death in women — with 32,271 fatalities in 2019. And while the majority of research has focused solely on men, women have actually a greater risk of dying from the conditions. According to Heart and Stroke, 20 percent more women died from heart failure and 32 percent more women died from stroke than men in Canada in 2019.

Lee’s symptom, 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 abdomen, shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting.

A general lack of awareness among both the general public and healthcare professionals means that 50 percent of women who have a heart attack don’t recognize their symptoms, according to Heart and Stroke. It released a new report on Wednesday (February 1) detailing the injustices women face in accessing heart and brain health care, marking the start of Heart Month.

The foundation says it is committed to improving women-specific research and education, as well as women’s own understanding of times in their lives when they are at greater risk, such as B. during pregnancy or menopause.

Raising awareness is also something Lee strives for. She recalled feeling foolish about going to the hospital for something as seemingly small as chest pain, and believes many women probably choose not to go for the same reason. Publicizing the symptoms, Lee believes, is an easy way to ensure more women get the care they need.

“Maybe someone’s life could be saved.”

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