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The beat goes on: Fergus woman’s early intervention saves her from heart attack

Although Franklin’s family tree had its share of heart problems, she was still surprised by what she learned after her own experience. “I always was aware of heart issues, but I didn’t realize women’s symptoms were so different from men’s. I always thought serious heart trouble had to be excruciating pain, and it doesn’t have to be.”

Helen Franklin just thought she was out of shape.

The 66-year-old Fergus Falls, Minn., woman was officially retired, but her lifestyle was far from retiring. She provided regular childcare for her energetic 3-year-old grandson Carter, loved to attend her grandchildren’s hockey games and spent time with her family at her cabin on Clitherall Lake.

After the long, bitter winter of 2013-14, the normally energetic Franklin thought it was also time to get in better shape for all of her activities. She’d noticed a little shortness of breath here and there, and figured it was because she needed to exercise more. As the weather warmed in late spring, she began a walking regimen.

But it didn’t go quite as planned.

Exercise seemed to trigger tightness in her chest along with nausea. After she quit moving, the discomfort disappeared.

Franklin knew this wasn’t right. Her former job as an appointment clerk/receptionist at Lake Region Healthcare had taught her the importance of paying attention to unusual symptoms. Her mother’s family had heart issues, and Franklin had lost her own husband to a massive heart attack.

So Franklin quickly made an appointment with Dr. Eric Lokken at Lake Region Healthcare. She got in right away. “He heard what my symptoms were and he didn’t waste any time,” Franklin says. “He scheduled a stress test, which didn’t go very well.”

Heart attack No. 1 killer of women

Franklin was advised to get an angiogram, an X-ray test that uses a special dye and camera to take pictures of the blood flow in an artery or vein. It turned out Lokken’s suspicions were right on target: Her heart showed four blockages. She needed a quadruple bypass.

Although campaigns like the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” are helping raise awareness about heart disease, many people still don’t realize that heart disease is the number one killer of women. Nancy Nubson, a long-time cardiac rehabilitation registered nurse at Lake Region Healthcare, attributes the lack of knowledge to several factors.

“There has been a history of women not being medically diagnosed as quickly as men, plus women tend to not seek emergency care promptly when they have symptoms of a heart attack, heart disease or symptoms of heart problems,” Nubson says.

One factor is that heart studies were historically conducted on males, according to the American Heart Association. Medical professionals also believe that women receive some protection from heart disease because of their estrogen production, although their risk balances out after menopause with that of men, Nubson says.

Perhaps most significantly, women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s. Men tend to experience pain, discomfort or a squeezing feeling in the chest, shoulders, inner arms, lower rib cage, neck or jaw. They may also feel faint, short of breath, sweaty or nauseated.

Women, on the other hand, may experience subtler symptoms, such as a vague discomfort, pressure, squeezing or ache in the chest, upper back, right arm, abdomen, shoulders, neck or jaw. And, much like Franklin, they are more apt to get a strong feeling of weakness and nausea, along with shortness of breath, dizziness and cold sweat, Nubson says.

Although Franklin’s family tree had its share of heart problems, she was still surprised by what she learned after her own experience. “I always was aware of heart issues, but I didn’t realize women’s symptoms were so different from men’s. I always thought serious heart trouble had to be excruciating pain, and it doesn’t have to be.”

The long road to recovery

Franklin underwent surgery on May 8, 2014. During the procedure, the surgeon discovered that the one artery that was 100-percent blocked had actually formed its own bypass artery. Even so, she still needed to receive a triple bypass.

Just two weeks after her bypass surgery, Franklin’s real rehabilitation began. She had her first session at LRH’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Center, located right down the hill from her home. Cardiac rehabilitation at the health center is a nationally certified program designed to meet the physical, emotional and educational needs of people recovering from a cardiac condition. The ultimate goal is to return the participant to an active, healthier life through exercise and lifestyle choices. The cardiac rehab center is just one aspect of care provided by LRH, as the organization plans to begin offering more cardiac services with the addition of a cardiologist this spring.

The program is highly individualized to accommodate each patient’s situation, abilities and needs, Nubson says. Trained professionals meet with the patient to review health concerns and medications and to provide a physical assessment. Then they help tailor a highly individualized program according to each patient’s abilities and needs. “Everything is explained to the patient and their family member, as they often want someone with them,” Nubson says.

Typically, LRH’s cardiac rehabilitation involves three one-hour sessions weekly. During that time, patients do flexibility, endurance and relaxation exercises. Trained professionals monitor the patients’ EKGs continually during each session; record blood pressure before, during and after exercise; and monitor the patient’s heart and lung sounds. Progress reports are sent to the patient’s doctor throughout the program, along with a final discharge summary once they’ve completed it.

Patients also receive education and dietary advice. If they are experiencing anxiety or depression – which are common emotional after-effects for such a major life event – counseling is provided and the patient’s practitioner is informed.

Franklin participated in cardiac rehab three times weekly for 12 weeks. As Nubson and cardiac rehab specialist Kendall Sethre monitored her, she worked out on various exercise equipment including Aerodyne exercise bikes and a treadmill. She also learned various warm-up, stretching and cool-down regimens. The prospect of exercising after major heart surgery could make anyone feel vulnerable, and Franklin was relieved that she had two experts guiding her along the way. “They took very good care of me,” she says. “It was really comforting to know that when you started exercising after surgery, you would have someone there if it was needed.”

Professional cardiac rehabilitation is considered so essential to patient success that Medicare and insurance companies will typically approve coverage for up to 36 visits. According to research, post-surgery rehabilitation can reduce death rates by 47 percent and recurrent heart attacks by as much as 33 percent, Nubson says.

Life goes on

Even after formal rehab ends, post-cardiac rehabilitation is a lifetime pursuit. Franklin continues to exercise three times a week at the local senior center and eats a low-fat, low-sodium diet. Fortunately, she never smoked, so she hasn’t had to kick that addictive habit.

And she’s living her life as normally as can be expected just eight months after major surgery. “I still don’t feel like my old self,” she says. “I’ve been told it could take up to a full year to do everything I did before. I still get very tired.”

Even so, the busy senior citizen is trying to live life to the fullest. She still loves watching her four grandsons play hockey and looks forward to actually being able to do something this summer that she missed out on last summer: spending time at the lake. She’ll even watch Carter, now 4 and as busy as ever, in a pinch.

And she’s grateful that she lives in a community where she was able to get the health care she needed when she needed it. “I think it was the knowledge of the doctors that got it started on the right track,” she says. “We didn’t wait for weeks to see if my heart was the problem. Dr. Lokken referred me right away, for which I was very thankful.”

Now she wants to share her own experience to help others be proactive about potential heart problems.

“Don’t neglect the symptoms,” she advises. “It’s not worth it. I was very fortunate in that I caught it in time and didn’t damage my heart like I would have had I had a heart attack. If the symptoms don’t feel normal for your body, make sure you check it out.”

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