Dr. Rachana Kulkarni, managing partner and cardiologist at Medicor Cardiology and chair of the department of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset, was recognized for her work in creating awareness on women’s heart disease by the American Heart Association last week.
The Garden State Go Red for Women luncheon in Princeton was attended by about 200 individuals from a variety of leading health care companies in the state and country.
The event, which was celebrating its 15th year, began by honoring survivors.
Fifteen women stood in a line and, one by one, using the previous person’s flame, lit red candles they held while standing in front of the crowd.
One of them, Danielle Denlein, was 35 years old and had just delivered her baby daughter on the fateful day eight years ago when she found herself in the emergency room with heart failure.
On Friday, she told the crowd about the traumatic experience. After being diagnosed, she attended her first Go Red for Women luncheon and immediately wanted to run away.
“I don't belong here. … Where are all the men? Isn't heart disease a men's disease?” she recalled thinking.
With a 40 percent loss of heart muscle, six stents and surviving heart failure, she is now an ambassador for the organization.
Denlein’s thoughts at her first luncheon reflect the problem Kulkarni has been fighting: Women's heart disease is poorly understood.
The symptoms are different for women, and women — especially women in business — don’t take enough care of themselves, Kulkarni said.
“Women do not pay attention to their symptoms. Heart disease is atypical in women,” she said.
What that means is the symptoms may not always be related to heart disease. The reason is because research on heart disease has focused on studying men and how to treat it in men, Kulkarni said.
“And cardiac research is what leads to what goes into textbooks, so physicians didn’t know, because it wasn’t in textbooks, and textbook definitions were only on what happened to men,” she said. “Lack of awareness, on the part of even physicians, led to lack of diagnosis and a lot of women had their symptoms written off as anxiety and stress.”
And that wasn’t hard to believe, especially for women who work.
“Tell me one working woman that doesn’t think they have stress,” Kulkarni said. “We are constantly juggling multiple things. Women are always in caregiver mode, they are always juggling 10 balls in the air, so it’s very easy to overlook your own health.”
“So, by the time women present with heart disease, it’s more advanced, and that leads to adverse problems.”
At least 670 women's lives have been saved through greater awareness, according to Stephern Allison, chairwoman of the Garden State Go Red event.
“This one really means a lot to me,” Kulkarni said when receiving her Woman of Distinction Award.
“Twenty years ago, when I went into the field of cardiology, I understood I am going into a field dominated by my male colleagues. Little did I know how deep the disparities ran,” she said. “ Lack of representation in the field of cardiology … translated into a lack of understanding of (heart) disease, lack of recognition of the disease, which lead to delays in the treatment, and later on translated into adverse problems for women. “
This lead to her belief that not only did she have to represent women in the field, but also look out for female patients.
“I made it my professional life’s goal to raise awareness of heart disease in women so that we can do better. Eighty-five percent of heart disease is preventable, and we just need to grab that opportunity,” she said.