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A Diagnosis at Last: Heart Screening Provides Answers

“Could my 22-year-old daughter have heart disease?”

This was the question that drove Larisa Meschi to urge her daughter, Renee, to take advantage of a free heart screening at Rush University Medical Center. It was a question that needed answering.

Since age 14, Renee had suffered progressively disabling symptoms, from dizziness and episodes of fainting to extreme fatigue. Still, no doctor could tell Renee or her mother what was wrong.

That was until February 2007, when Renee was one of nearly 150 women who had their hearts checked at Rush with potentially lifesaving screening tests, including ultrasound imaging of the heart.

The free screening was one of several held at Rush as part of an ongoing effort to help women find undiagnosed heart disease. The screenings are cosponsored by Rush and 2 BigHearts Foundation, an organization founded by a man who lost both his wife and sister-in-law to undiagnosed heart disease after each suffered a severe heart attack and died on the same day.

Through screening, Renee discovered the cause of her symptoms: vaso-depressor syncope. In this condition of the nervous system, the heart slows down — sometimes dangerously — and pumps out less blood to the brain, causing blood pressure to drop and trigger fainting.

The good news for Renee is that her symptoms can be controlled with fairly simple steps, such as staying hydrated and seeing her doctor regularly.

Perhaps the biggest improvement to her health is her new outlook. “Finally knowing what was wrong — and how to control it — took a world of worry off me,” she says. “My symptoms were undiagnosed for such a long time; I was actually afraid I was dying.”

Know your risk and respond

Renee’s mother deserves real credit for her initiative, given that fainting is often a red flag of heart disease.

“Renee did not turn out to have serious heart problems, but despite what many of us think, heart disease can develop at any age, and it is very much a woman’s health issue, ” emphasizes Annabelle Volgman, MD, medical director of the Rush Heart Center for Women and the cardiologist who diagnosed Renee.

Indeed, nearly one in two women will develop heart disease in her lifetime, and one in three will die from it.

“That makes heart disease six times deadlier in women than breast cancer, which women often worry more about, ” Volgman says.

No woman can afford to be complacent about heart disease. To protect your heart, follow this advice:

Watch for signs of undiagnosed heart disease. Namely, look for shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, fainting, an irregular heartbeat, or chest pressure or discomfort. About two-thirds of women who die from heart disease have unrecognized symptoms, Volgman says.

If you have any of these signs, alert a doctor. If the cause isn’t identified, visit a specialist. Like Renee, you may benefit from an evaluation at the Rush Heart Center for Women. There, cardiologists can check your heart with highly specialized tests that can help detect dangerous blockages in heart arteries and other signs of heart disease. Doctors now know that these types of blockages can build up differently in women.

Call 911 if there’s any chance you’re having a heart attack. Chest pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back is a tip-off. Still, women are more apt than men to have less typical symptoms, such as nausea, intense fatigue, excessive sweating and jaw pain. Visit for more details.

Even if you feel fine, ask your doctor to help you evaluate your heart disease risk with all appropriate screening tests. Among other things, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking (especially while on birth control pills), extra pounds and a lack of exercise can damage your heart — without triggering symptoms.

The bottom line: “The women most likely to be harmed by heart disease may be those who aren’t aware of their own risk, ” Volgman cautions.

Don’t let yourself be one of them.

Signs of Heart Disease

  • Shortness of breath
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pressure or discomfort

To learn more about your risk for heart disease, register online for “The Culture of a Woman’s Heart,” a free event at Rush University Medical Center.


Heart Care Tailored to Women at
Rush University Medical Center in Chicago

Rush University Medical Center offers comprehensive health care services for women of all ages. And Rush is also home to a heart program devoted exclusively to women.

At the Rush Heart Center for Women, women with heart problems are diagnosed and treated with great sensitivity and innovation by a team of cardiologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, nutritionists, cardiac rehabilitation specialists, cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiac psychologists who are backed up by the comprehensive resources of a world-class academic medical center.

At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, medical science blends with a sincere commitment to provide women with the absolute finest, most compassionate care. Specialists and subspecialists work together to address the special needs of women, from common to complex to the everyday needs of women and their families. We offer direct access to the latest innovations and options — from prenatal care for high risk pregnancies, to diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of abdominal and pelvic disorders, to leading-edge research.

For more information about other health services and medical care for women at Rush visit the Women’s Health Services home page.

Looking for Other Health Information?

Visit Discover Rush’s Web Resource page to find articles on health topics and recent health news from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. You will also find many helpful links to other areas of our site.

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Just phone (888) 352-RUSH or (888) 352-7874 for help finding the Rush doctor who’s right for you.


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