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Surprise diagnosis leads to positive life changes

February 07, 2020

When Michelle Frear started having breathing problems, she initially attributed them to a respiratory infection. But in time the 56-year-old Binghamton nurse learned she was dealing with congestive heart failure, a condition she seemed too young to have. “I just didn’t fit the profile,” she told a crowd gathered for the 2020 “National Wear Red for Women Day” Feb. 7 at UHS Vestal. “I was otherwise healthy and usually a busy and active person.”

But Ms. Frear cautioned attendees that various forms of heart disease can become an issue at any age, and the symptoms for women may differ from the traditionally understood chest pain associated with heart conditions in men. “In my case, I had severe shortness of breath and swollen legs,” she said. “Then an EKG showed left ventricular hypertrophy.” 

Ms. Frear is doing better today, learning how to live with a chronic cardiovascular condition that affects many women and men nationwide. She was the featured UHS patient who spoke at “Wear Red Day” at UHS Vestal.

The annual event, which includes a ribbon-cutting ceremony, is designed to raise public awareness of heart disease in women and the unique symptoms with which it often presents. Part of the nationwide “Go Red for Women” campaign, the special day is a presentation of UHS in conjunction with the American Heart Association.

“Wearing something red today is a long-standing tradition around the country as we celebrate the start of American Heart Month each February,” said John M. Carrigg, president and chief executive officer of UHS and chair of this year’s Southern Tier Heart Walk.

The observance has been successful in raising the public’s consciousness about the early warning signs of heart attack and other heart issues, and prompting women to quickly seek treatment when unusual symptoms appear.

“Wear Red Day has drawn attention to the unique symptoms of heart disease in women, and to the latest advances, strategies and clinical responses that are saving lives,” Mr. Carrigg said.

In addition to Ms. Frear and Mr. Carrigg, other speakers were Ahmed Khan, DO, of the UHS Heart & Vascular Institute, and Franklin Fry, executive director of the American Heart Association.

Ms. Frear noted that the CHF diagnosis she received was deeply concerning, not only to her but to her family—her husband Tim and their young-adult son and two daughters. Yet her training and experience as a registered nurse helped her understand and process the situation better.

“I’d really like this to be a fixable problem, but I know that’s not realistic,” she said.

So today she continues her journey with courage and determination and with a commitment to the right kind of medical management for her condition. She sees her UHS cardiologist, UHS’ Hisham Kashou, MD, every six months, and is grateful for the expertise of the UHS Congestive Heart Failure Clinic, especially nurse practitioner Enid Nixon. She takes medications to keep her fluid levels normal and increase her heart’s pumping capacity, and follows a low-sodium diet. 

And she encourages other women not to make assumptions about any symptoms that might point to a cardiovascular issue.  Because of her own experience, she particularly cautions people to increase their awareness of the signs and symptoms of CHF.

“Shortness of breath, sudden weight gain through fluid retention, and swelling in the legs can all indicate CHF,” she noted. She urged women to be good advocates for their own health and to pursue symptoms by sharing details with their doctors.

Ms. Frear’s message resonated with the large crowd, most members of which were decked out in red at the event, which included a ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

“My advice to other women of any age is to get regular checkups, especially if there is a family history of heart disease,” she said.  “Eat healthy, watch your sodium and fat consumption, and exercise at least three times a week.”

Wear Red Day Ribbon Cutting