Though the incidence of heart disease in women is higher than men, it’s still less likely to be diagnosed, says cardiologist Dr. Courtney Virgilio.
Story by Jim Hays
When CHI Mercy Health’s Shaw Heart & Vascular Center came calling with a practice opportunity, it wasn’t hard for cardiologist Dr. Courtney Virgilio to make up her mind.
She’d already been working at Shaw Heart part-time, filling in when the center was short-staffed while maintaining her own cardiology practice in Bend. The Umpqua Valley’s attractions were many, and after 10 years of practice in California and Bend, the Chicago native wanted to find a place to settle down with her husband and their two young boys.
Roseburg looked like a great spot to do that. What ultimately made Virgilio take the leap, however, were her experiences working at Shaw Heart.
“They make it very easy to take care of people,” Virgilio says. “It’s a great team effort. When you need something to help a patient, they make sure you get it quickly. And the nurses are amazing.”
By September 2018, Virgilio was onboard full time, joining a state-of-the-art center and a skilled and compassionate care team that has helped Shaw Heart earn national Accreditation for Cardiovascular Excellence.
It’s been an “ideal” experience, says Virgilio, who enjoys cooking and hiking with her family and watching her sons, ages 12 and 10, play soccer and basketball.
Born and raised in Chicago, Dr. Virgilio earned her medical degree at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University, where she graduated magna cum laude. She completed her residency and cardiology fellowship at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis.
More recently, she was medical director for cardiology at Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas, Calif., before moving to Bend Memorial Clinic. She is board-certified in internal medicine, nuclear cardiology, echocardiography and cardiovascular disease.
While helping patients is her primary focus, Virgilio shares with her cardiology colleagues a passion for prevention of heart disease, which is the top killer of Americans regardless of income, sex, age or race.
She sees education as an important step in minimizing the everyday risks by knowing what to watch out for and what to do about them. Because knowing can be lifesaving. That’s particularly true for women.
“The rate of heart disease in women in the U.S. is not only higher than men, it is also more likely to go undiagnosed until later stages of the illness — and sometimes too late,” says Virgilio.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, heart disease accounts for a quarter of all deaths among U.S. women. In addition, one study found that two-thirds of women who die suddenly of heart disease show no apparent symptoms.
“Heart problems in women don’t always follow the textbook. Without the classic symptoms, women might not realize they have a heart problem.”
-Dr. Courtney Virgilio
A recent survey by the American Heart Association indicated women worry much more about contracting breast cancer than heart disease — even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year.
One reason for the disconnect, according to a 2017 article published by Harvard University Medical School, is heart disease is associated with older women and, while younger women often know someone who has survived breast cancer, few know someone who has heart disease.
“Heart problems in women don’t always follow the textbook,” Virgilio says. “Without the classic symptoms, women might not realize they have a heart problem.”
“There are things we all can do to help ourselves, to work on prevention,” Virgilio says. “Good outcomes are not necessarily all in the physician’s hands. Let’s see what we can learn to do differently at home. It’s important for everyone to realize that there are things you can control to get ahead of it. And it should be on the radar for everyone.”
IS IT A HEART ATTACK?
Signs of a heart attack in women can be the same as those commonly associated with heart attack in men — including pain in the arm, neck, back or jaw as well as nausea and shortness of breath.
But women may also experience less common and more subtle signs, such as:
Loss of appetite
Feeling weak or tired
An achy, tight or “heavy” feeling in the chest or back
Breaking out in a cold sweat
The more signs that are present, the greater the likelihood of a heart problem. The best chance for victims of cardiac arrest, heart attack or stroke is to call 911 immediately, as soon as you experience these symptoms.
For more information on women and heart disease, visit womenshealth.gov.