Women's cardiac care has changed in many ways in the 20 years since Dorothy Eberhardt first began receiving care at Rush University Medical Center. What hasn't changed is the compassionate, personal attention that Eberhardt has received over the years from her cardiologist, Annabelle Volgman, MD, medical director of the Rush Heart Center for Women.
Eberhardt's treatment predates the Heart Center for Women itself, which opened in 2003 to provide comprehensive care to address the unique needs of women with heart problems.
The center was created because heart disease often is misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed in women. "Women's heart attack symptoms frequently are ignored or overlooked," Volgman says. "Studies showed back in the 1980s that men in their 40s were dying of heart attacks. It took another decade for the same studies to show that women were dying of heart attacks, too — just usually not until after menopause."
As a result, doctors were not routinely trained to diagnose heart disease in women — a problem compounded by the fact that women often have different heart attack symptoms than men.
Eberhardt's case provides an example of this problem. When she went to see her doctor for her severe chest pains in January 1985, he gave her pain medication and sent her home. When the pain didn't improve after a day, she returned to her doctor and was sent to a hospital, where it was determined that she was having a heart attack.
Although she survived, Eberhardt eventually began experiencing arrhythmias — irregular heartbeats that can cause sudden cardiac death. In addition, her heart attack caused congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump sufficient quantities of blood to the rest of the body.
In 1990, her cardiologist determined she needed specialized care and referred her to Volgman, whose expertise includes treatment of arrhythmias. "Women don't suffer from sudden cardiac death and atrial fibrillation (the most common form of arrhythmia) as much as men, but they have higher mortality rates," Volgman says. "They have more symptoms but aren't treated as aggressively. We've learned a lot about women and atrial fibrillation based on studies we've done at Rush."
Help for the Heart
Eberhardt's condition stabilized, and she no longer has symptoms of heart failure. Eventually, though, she needed additional help for her arrhythmias. Ten years ago, she had a defibrillator — a device that sends an electronic charge to the heart if it begins beating irregularly in order to jolt it back into a proper rhythm — implanted in her chest.
Like heart medications, defibrillator technology has advanced significantly over the last two decades. They now include the ability to pace the heart out of arrhythmia. "It doesn't just shock the patient, it can help the heart recover and get marked improvement in function," Volgman says.
A Lasting Relationship
In 2004, 14 years after she began receiving care from Volgman, Eberhardt and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They invited Volgman to the party and paid tribute to her there, crediting her with making the event possible. "I don't think I'd be alive if it wasn't for her," Eberhardt says.
Eberhardt lives in Kankakee, a 90-minute drive to Rush, but she continues to travel to Rush every three to four months for her treatment because of the personal connection she feels with Volgman. "She absolutely cares about all her patients, not just me," she says.
And it's not just Volgman who has earned Eberhardt's affection: "The entire staff at the Heart Center for Women is great at treating the whole person — not just the heart."
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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.
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