In 2009, a short walk for Constance Vela while vacationing in Europe turned into a battle for air. With each step that she took, she became more out of breath. Having been to multiple physicians over the years with the same complaints of shortness of breath and chest pain, Vela had been diagnosed with angina. But her medications provided no relief, and nobody suggested any further testing.
When she returned home from her trip, her sister, Agnes, insisted that she make an appointment to be evaluated by a cardiologist at NYU Winthrop Hospital. Agnes had recently seen Kevin P. Marzo, MD, chief of the Division of Cardiology at NYU Winthrop and an accomplished interventional cardiologist skilled in all aspects of vascular interventions, give a lecture at a community event about the symptoms of heart disease in women, and she knew that her sister had exhibited many of those same symptoms.
“The day of my appointment, I barely made it into the office. As soon as I entered, I was put into a wheelchair and brought straight to NYU Winthrop’s emergency room,” recalled Vela.
An angiogram—a series of X-rays showing the internal contours of blood vessels which feed the heart—revealed that three of Vela’s arteries were completely clogged, as well as her carotid artery. A carotid endarterectomy and triple bypass surgery were immediately performed by William J. Kokotos, MD, a skilled heart surgeon and director of academic affairs for the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at NYU Winthrop. Just six weeks after her surgery, Vela was able to travel to Connecticut with her husband to see their son and grandchildren for Thanksgiving.
“That day was the breakthrough of my recovery—my fear was over, and I felt like I was given a new life,” said Vela.
Since then, Vela and her husband have traveled back to Europe twice, and, both times, she was able to see and enjoy even more sites than before. She continues taking trips to visit her children and grandchildren and thoroughly enjoys being able to exercise each day.
An integral part of Vela’s recovery has been the support she has received from Dr. Marzo, as well as from the Women’s Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center at NYU Winthrop—a comprehensive patient-centered prevention, treatment, and recovery program designed for women with cardiovascular disease or those at risk for such.
The team includes Barbara George, EdD, RCEP, MSN, RN, program director, and Wendy Drewes, BSN, RN, advanced practice nurse coordinator, who work with each patient to create an individualized lifestyle management program to help reduce their risk of developing heart disease or help them through the recovery process.
“As the number one killer of women, heart disease is more likely to affect a woman than any other disease,” explained Dr. George. “Currently, more than one in three adult women has some form of heart disease. And, studies have shown that gender differences play a role in preventing, diagnosing and treating cardiovascular disease. This is why it is crucial that each woman takes proactive steps to take care of her heart.”
Heart disease can present itself differently in women and men, and because it is often thought of as a man’s disease, many women are not aware of the risk factors for, or symptoms of, heart disease.
“NYU Winthrop’s Women’s Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center is exceptional because the multidisciplinary team integrates current evidence-based clinical experience with healing-oriented medicine that considers the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—as well as each individual’s lifestyle,” said Dr. George.
Vela knew that she had to be proactive about her heart health because of her family history, an important risk factor for developing heart disease. Sadly, her mother had passed away at 51-years-old from heart disease, and her father fell to the same tragic fate at the age of 66.
“At the time of my surgery, I was 66 years old, the same age that my father was when he passed away,” said Vela. “With that type of family history, you want to fight every way you can.” In addition to unavoidable risk factors such as family history, research shows that other modifiable risk factors such as lack of exercise, being overweight, having a poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and stress are linked to cardiovascular disease.
“These factors can be eliminated or reduced through the proper adjustments to lifestyle, and that’s where the Women’s Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center at NYU Winthrop can help,” said Dr. George. “We offer a comprehensive lifestyle approach, addressing all associated modifiable risk factors including smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity by offering expertise in cardiology, nutrition, exercise, and mind–body intervention which are critical to cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment.”
Seventy-year-old Barbara Ghyll of North Baldwin, NY, has been able to improve her heart health and reduce her risk of developing heart disease, thanks to the help of Dr. Marzo, Dr. George, and NYU Winthrop’s Women’s Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center. A retired principal who currently works as a leadership development specialist, Ghyll travels from Long Island to New York City each day, and has no time to feel any less than her best.
After being diagnosed with prediabetes and an arrhythmic heartbeat, Ghyll met with Dr. Marzo, who performed an EKG as well as a stress test. Together, Dr. Marzo and Dr. George helped Ghyll develop a plan to lose weight and adjust her medications.
Thanks to their expert care, Ghyll has been able to keep her blood pressure under control and lose over 20 pounds. Most importantly, she enjoys an active lifestyle doing what she loves most, educating.
“After speaking with Dr. George, I learned how important it was for me to take care of my heart,” said Ghyll.
Now an advocate for raising awareness of heart disease in women, Ghyll has brought Dr. George to speak to women in her church about ways to reduce their risks for developing heart disease.
“The lifesaving education that Dr. George provided prompted many women in my church to make changes in their lives,” said Ghyll. “Who knows how many lives she’s saved through her education and support.” In keeping with the hospital’s mission, the Women’s Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center recognizes the importance of educating the community-at-large and providing the necessary tools to address heart risk and improve overall health and wellbeing.
In 2013, the Division of Cardiology is planning to expand its center to include a comprehensive lifestyle medicine program with the ultimate goal of improving the cardiovascular health and wellbeing for all individuals it serves.
NYU Winthrop was recently named to Becker’s Hospital Review’s “100 Hospitals with Great Women’s Health Programs” list, which recognizes some of the nation’s most outstanding hospitals for women’s health programs.
NYU Winthrop has also been identified by Healthgrades as among the top 100 hospitals nationally for excellence in overall cardiac care, cardiac surgery, and coronary interventional procedures.