Courtesy of American Heart Association

A woman was shopping for groceries when she felt a sudden pain in her chest. After she told her husband, he offered her an antacid tablet and dismissed it. Later that hour, she was taken to the hospital for a heart attack.

This case was one of many shared at the New Haven Go Red for Women initiative, an annual campaign to support women’s heart health in Connecticut. Chaired by assistant professor Lisa Freed — director of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Women’s Heart & Vascular Program — in partnership with the American Heart Association, the campaign has raised $75,000 for the AHA so far.

This year marks Go Red for Women’s return to an in-person gathering after two years of virtual programming. At the signature event, “Heart Smart Ways to Celebrate Your Life,” physicians, nurses, patients and community members joined together for an evening of educational speaker and fundraising events, while learning from each other’s experiences related to heart disease. 

“Whether it’s a doctor telling me one of these events, or another just human being with human experiences telling you — it makes it real,” Freed said in an interview with the News. “And it makes you take it seriously, which women don’t always do.”

Cardiovascular disease has not traditionally been thought of as a women’s disease, noted Freed, and the discourse around it differs from other diseases such as breast cancer, which has created a robust awareness campaign nationwide.

Until recently, most of the foundational research on heart disease — its symptoms, treatments and medications — were based on data from men. Yet cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death for women: the illness is responsible for about one in every three female deaths, according to the American Heart Association.

“The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement empowers women to take charge of their heart health while raising funds and awareness,” Adria D. Giordano, executive director of AHA Connecticut, wrote to the News. “Along with local supporters like the Heart and Vascular Center at Yale New Haven Health, we can truly make a difference in our fight to save lives.” 

At the start of her career, Freed noted a lack of basic treatment and prevention methods in medical care for women with heart conditions. Women in hospitals often are not educated about how to manage risk factors of heart disease, such as getting their lipids checked or blood pressure treated.

This drove Freed and other women’s care physicians toward a new mission: to inform women about their risk, prevention and treatment options for the overlooked disease. As part of this push, the inaugural New Haven Go Red event was held in 2017.

“We started to say, okay, at least one day a year, we’re going to inform women in an educational setting and make people aware,” Freed said. “And then the other 364 days … [I’m] going out to healthcare clinics, churches, … community centers, women’s business associations and speaking in front of them.”

Moreover, as noted by Francine LoRusso — a critical care nurse who currently serves as senior vice president and executive director of the Heart & Vascular Center and Transplantation Center across the Yale-New Haven Health system — heart disease is complex because it involves a multitude of factors, including diet, exercise, genetics and environment. It is easy to miss a major symptom without a holistic context of a patient’s life. 

As such, LoRusso pointed to the cruciality of putting a face and a story behind each patient — and teaching them to advocate for themselves.

“When you have a multitude of patients that are presenting to any of our hospitals or within our ambulatory sites, we need to listen and take all the elements around,” LoRusso told the News. “Do they have a good diet? Are they in an environment where they’re getting the care they need? Is transportation an issue?”

The signature event of the Go Red initiative was held at the New Haven Lawn Club on Feb. 8. Speakers included Gina Barreca, humorist and English professor at the University of Connecticut, who delivered a keynote address framing heart disease prevention as an opportunity for women to uplift each other. Barreca’s speech was followed by a moderated conversation with three cardiologists, who explored the stories of three fictitious women across three generations with cardiovascular disease. The panel touched upon sex differences in heart attack symptoms, risk factor management strategies and pregnancy-related complications. 

The event also featured a Tai Chi class led by Shifu Shirley Chock, in which all participants stood up and tried out basic moves. Afterward, Alisa Bowens led the attendees in a salsa dance workshop. 

150 guests attended the Feb. 8 event, but Freed emphasized that she hopes to welcome and educate anyone who has a connection to heart disease, or is simply interested in learning more. Through the Go Red initiative, cardiologists, nurses, internists, obstetrician-gynecologists, hospital staff and community members are encouraged to connect. 

“It’s an enormous range of educational levels, expertise and knowledge base,” Freed said. “So it’s a real range from literally the president of the hospital, who’s a physician, to a community person, who doesn’t know anything about heart disease”

Beyond sharing expert opinions, however, both Freed and LoRusso placed emphasis on storytelling from average people and patients. In a segment of the signature event, one woman shared her story of experiencing and surviving a heart attack, a narrative which LoRusso described as “illuminating.” 

According to LoRusso, these anecdotes are critical to helping women remember and learn from each other’s experiences. 

“If I’m educating you about heart disease, I’m giving you facts … [and] we tap into our heart and vascular cardiologist, or CT surgeons or others to share their experience as a physician,” LoRusso said. “But when you’re hearing the patient perspective, or a family member perspective, that’s much more powerful.”

Indeed, both Freed and LoRusso described social determinants which drive women to minimize their symptoms. Not only does heart attack present more subtly in women — fatigue and back pain are common symptoms that go unnoticed — but women’s complaints are more frequently glossed over by doctors as well. 

Freed recalled how only 8 to 10 percent of cardiologists were women when she started her medical training. Although the number has increased slightly and most large university hospitals have adopted special women’s heart care centers, there are still strides to be made. Freed recalled being the only community female cardiologist in a town when she started her practice.

“I basically came to town, and these women flocked to my practice,” Freed said. “They were like, ‘I’ve been having chest pain for years. Nobody’s listening to me, can you figure out what’s wrong?’”

Looking forward, the Go Red campaign hopes to continue to expand equitable cardiovascular care and awareness. Future programs include a mentorship for girls aspiring toward STEM careers, forthcoming in May, as well as broader educational programs. Freed is also working on clinical research to investigate how heart diseases present uniquely in women. 

However, health does not only start with hospital care, Freed and LoRusso emphasized. Equally important is for women of all ages to cultivate beneficial lifestyle habits. LoRusso pointed to the holistic nature of care, emphasizing how various demographics may experience environmental factors differently. She noted how Hispanic individuals in the Fairfield-Bridgeport area and the African-American population in the New Haven area have been disproportionately impacted by restricted access to care. 

“We need to be better about that,” LoRusso said. “We need to really look at the whole patient, and we need to listen to the patient.”

Fundraising for this year’s Go Red for Women campaign ends on June 30.

Samantha Liu covers Community Health & Policy for the SciTech desk and serves as co-chair for the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. As a Global Health Scholar, she studies English and Molecular Biology.