I still remember the call in the middle of the night.
I was in a deep sleep, and I didn’t wake up enough to be alarmed about a call at this hour.
My brother was on the line. It was bad news. My mother was dead.
I still wasn’t alarmed. I was just confused. How could she be dead? We’d just seen her early that day. She’d been in the hospital for some surgery, but everything was great and she was going home in the morning. No, she was going home this morning.
A few days later the doctor called. He said the autopsy showed she’d had a massive heart attack. The happenstance of her being in the hospital with a team of doctors and nurses nearby meant that she’d had terrific care from the instant she’d felt the pain, but the doctor explained, "There was no hope." She died immediately.
Then he explained that my mother had advanced heart disease and that there was evidence of old damage. He said her heart was barely functioning.
Advanced heart disease?
She had been to doctors. Shoot, she’d had a full medical work up a few weeks before the surgery. But no one had ever considered heart disease because, back in the 1990s – just like in the 1890s – heart disease was a "man’s disease."
Today, women get more complete medical care. And they need it. Coronary heart disease is the Number One killer of both men and women. And certain heart diseases are far more likely to affect women than men.
We do better now in treating women because of medical research, including a lot of work supported by the National Institutes of Health. Not only have they raised awareness of the problems of heart disease in women, they have also worked on prevention efforts. For example, we know that low dose aspirin therapy impacts women’s health differently than men’s because of the Women’s Health Study – a 10 year initiative conducted by researchers at the Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston. We know that taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause does not protect women’s cardiovascular health because of findings from several studies, including the Women’s Health Initiative. And we better understand cardiovascular risks and causes of cardiovascular disease because we have been collecting data on women’s and men’s heart health since 1948 through the Framingham Heart study – a collaboration between the NIH, Boston University, and the people of Framingham Massachusetts.
My mother was born on Valentine’s Day, and when I was a kid I started baking her a heart shaped cake each year. I still have the pans and I still bake a cake. This year, my granddaughter and I worked on it together. But now I do something more: I fight for more funding for NIH research so that other mothers will get earlier treatment and live longer, healthier lives – and they can celebrate more birthdays with their children and their grandchildren.
Fighting for more NIH research: It seems like the right way to remember someone you love.