Close friends and family members were quick to dismiss Eileen Dreczka's fatigue, weight loss and breathlessness as nothing more than a case of pre-wedding jitters. After all, the then 41-year-old Sheboygan, Wis. (pop. 50,792), bank teller was about to marry her fiancé, Gerry, a few months later. Her general practitioner also dismissed her symptoms after blood tests and a lung X-ray came back normal in September 2004.
"But I wasn't getting any better," Dreczka recalls. "At my bridal shower in December, my best friend's mother told me I looked like hell," she says. "I was convinced it was lung cancer and went back to my doctor two more times. He diagnosed me with pneumonia and gave me an inhaler to help with my breathing."
Still, Dreczka's symptoms worsened and her cough grew more severe. She eventually saw a cardiologist who, in January 2005–six months before her wedding and five months after she started having symptoms–immediately diagnosed Dreczka with congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump enough blood to the body's other organs, and cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed.
"We never fathomed it would have anything to do with the heart," she says.
Neither do many doctors. More than 90 percent of primary care doctors don't know that heart disease kills more women than men each year, according to the American Heart Association. As a result, women like Dreczka are less likely than men to receive diagnostic tests and treatments for heart disease in a timely fashion.
"With younger women, there is not that reflex to say, 'This could be heart disease, let me rule it out,'" says Dr. Susan Bennett, an American Heart Association spokeswoman and director of the Women's Heart Program at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. "By contrast, If a 41-year-old guy in a tie walks into our office, we think that guy has heart disease until proven otherwise."
Pending federal legislation called the HEART for Women Act aims to change that mentality by raising awareness among women and their doctors, providing gender-specific information on life-saving drugs and medical devices, and improving screening for low-income women.
"Women and their physicians should be aware that the female heart is vulnerable and the same preventive measures that are undertaken for men should be undertaken for women," says Dr. Nanette Wenger, a cardiologist and editor of Women & Heart Disease.
"If they had made my diagnosis earlier, there would have been less damage to my heart," says Dreczka, who hopes to spare other women the pain of late diagnosis by spreading the word as a member of WomenHeart, a national coalition for women with heart disease.
"The good news is that if you are able to get risk factors controlled early, you can reduce heart disease and stroke risk by over 80 percent," Bennett says.