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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000411126.63681.4b
Features: Cover Story

Heart Disease Survivor Liz Tatham: Encouraging Women to Go Red

Childers, Linda

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Two years ago, 41-year-old Liz Tatham was the picture of health. The busy mom of four prided herself on eating healthy and enjoying regular exercise, so when she began experiencing a lack of energy and shortness of breath, she initially chalked it up to a severe case of bronchitis.

“I always suffered from seasonal allergies, so I just assumed I was having respiratory problems,” Tatham says. “Yet even after taking a full course of antibiotics my symptoms continued to get worse.”

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Suddenly, even walking up the stairs of her family's home left her winded, and everything she ate began giving her indigestion.

“Doctors thought it might be my gallbladder but all of my tests came back looking good,” Tatham says. “At night my symptoms were even worse–I felt as if I were sleeping with a stack of books on my chest.”

An avid runner who typically ran 15 miles each week, Tatham found herself barely able to complete the 5K run held at her son's school.

“I couldn't even keep up with the slowest participants at the back of the group,” she says. Finally, as a precaution, she made an appointment with a cardiologist who detected a heart murmur and conducted a series of tests. Tatham was shocked to learn she had congenital bicuspid aortic valvular disease, a condition that was causing blood to back up into her heart.

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As blood goes through the chambers of the heart, it passes through four one-way valves to make sure the blood flows in the right direction. Congenital valvular disease occurs when the valves aren't formed properly before birth. In Tatham's case, her aortic valve, which is supposed to have three “cusps” that help the blood flow, only had two (bicuspid = two cusps). The blood wasn't flowing perfectly, but good enough that it did not cause problems until she was in her 40s.

Because she'd always been so healthy, Tatham had no idea she had been born with this condition. Her doctor told her she would need open heart surgery to correct it.

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Fit and healthy all of her life, Tatham never dreamed heart disease would stop her in her tracks at such a young age.

“Even after my diagnosis, I don't think I fully grasped the seriousness of my condition,” she says. “I went into ‘mom mode,’ thinking ‘Okay, this can be fixed, everything's good.’”

Tatham's surgery was scheduled for two months away, and as her symptoms got progressively worse she began to acknowledge the seriousness of her condition.

“My breathing at night became so bad that I had to sleep upright in a recliner,” she says. “I also decided I needed to obtain a second opinion. One of our neighbors, who is a doctor, suggested I contact the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, known as a leader in heart valve surgery programs.”

Although a visit to the Cleveland Clinic involved a short plane ride from her Kansas City, Missouri home, Tatham felt it was important to research her various surgical options before going under the knife.

“I was initially told I needed an aortic valve replacement, but after doctors at the Cleveland Clinic ran more extensive tests, they felt I was a good candidate for aortic valve repair since my heart and muscles were in good shape.”

With an active lifestyle as the mom of four children between the ages of 12 and 20, Tatham thought valve repair seemed like a better surgical option. Her doctors told her that an aortic valve repair would last at least ten years, maybe longer, and then might require a valve replacement.

“I'm still young and I can be kind of clumsy, so I wanted to avoid the anticoagulant medications (blood thinners) that patients are required to take after valve replacement surgery,” she says. “I'm hoping I fall into the category where my valve repair will last me the rest of my life.”

Three months after her initial diagnosis, Tatham was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic for a six-hour surgery. Although she remained in the hospital for five days, she immediately felt better.

“The first thing I noticed after surgery was how much better my breathing was,” she says. “And I experienced the best sleep that I had in months.”

Twelve weeks after her surgery, Tatham began cardiac rehabilitation near her home in Kansas City.

“I felt like the new kid at school,” she says with a laugh. “I was younger than most of the other patients, and felt as if I didn't really fit in. It was a humbling experience, but once the other patients found out why I was there, they took me under their wing.”

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Although her rehab took longer than she expected, Tatham has resumed her active lifestyle and has a new passion: promoting awareness of cardiac risk factors as one of six national spokeswomen for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women™ campaign (

“It took me 18 months to feel completely better and now I hope that by sharing my story, I can help others,” she says. “I know women especially can get so busy caring for their families that they put their own health on the back burner.”

In retrospect, Tatham wishes she had asked questions about her family's cardiac history, since bicuspid aortic valvular disease tends to run in families. She also wishes she had not written off her initial symptoms so quickly.

“I've learned heart disease doesn't discriminate. It affects people of all ages and races,” Tatham says. “I was shocked to learn that 90 percent of women have four or more risk factors for heart disease.”

Although she always tried to lead a healthy lifestyle, Tatham has made it a point to make her health a priority by getting daily exercise and eating a heart-healthy diet low in salt, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and refined sugars.

And she's not only doing it for herself, but for her children as well. “My youngest child, who was 10 years old when I went through surgery, told me that seeing me ill really scared him,” Tatham says. “I promised him I would do everything I could to not only maintain my own good health, but to make sure that other moms and their children don't have to go through what I did.”

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Recognizing the signs of valvular heart disease

Valvular heart disease involves one or more of the valves of the heart (the aortic and mitral valves on the left and the pulmonary and tricuspid valves on the right). Valve problems may be congenital (present at birth) or acquired (due to causes later in life such as age and risk factors for heart disease).

Since heart valve disease can often progress slowly, it's not unusual for patients like Tatham to initially be diagnosed with asthma or bronchitis, says Dr. Robert Bonow, a renowned cardiologist and professor of cardiology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Symptoms of heart valve disease include:

* shortness of breath

* irregular, rapid heartbeats

* weakness

* dizziness or fainting

* swelling of the feet, ankles or abdomen

* pressure-like discomfort in the chest.

For more information, visit to read our online-only bonus article, “Pump it up: The latest in treating valvular heart disease.”

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Get heart healthy with the Go Red for Women™ campaign

The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign was launched in 2004 to educate women about the risk factors associated with heart disease.

“We launched Go Red to address the common misconception that heart disease primarily affects men,” says Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “I'm proud that since then we've seen a dramatic increase in women's awareness that heart disease is actually their number one cause of death, and far from something that only affects men.”

In addition to promoting awareness, the Go Red campaign hopes to help women lower their cardiac risk factors and adopt a healthier lifestyle for themselves and their families. On their website,, women will find a free online “Heart Checkup” questionnaire that helps them to evaluate their own cardiovascular risk, and offers an action plan to reduce their risk. Women can also visit to find helpful nutrition information and advice, including a list with “10 Tips for a Picky Eater” that can be useful in teaching children about healthy eating habits.

“There are simple steps we all can take to slow or even halt the onward march of heart disease,” Brown says. “Key among these are eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity and not smoking, [in addition to] scheduling regular visits to a healthcare professional to get screened for blood pressure, total cholesterol and blood sugar, as well as weight and waist circumference.”

The Go Red campaign encourages women to make simple changes that can make a big difference in their heart health.

“The next time you're ordering from a menu, take a minute to review your choices and look for a heart healthy entrée,” Brown says. “Or the next time you have a free half-hour and you're trying to decide whether to watch TV or take a walk, stop and think about what's best for your heart.”

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Brown says she hopes the Go Red campaign will also address many of the misconceptions that women have concerning heart disease.

“Many people assume that if you have a family history of heart disease, it's inevitable that you'll someday develop heart disease yourself,” she says. In fact, 80 percent of cardiac events in women can be prevented through healthy choices involving diet, physical activity and abstinence from smoking. Another misconception is that living a heart-healthy life is somehow ‘difficult’ or requires that you confine yourself to a Spartan regimen of diet and exercise. Very minor changes in our daily routine can make a very positive difference, but the key word here is ‘routine.’ You've got to stick with those changes.

February is American Heart Month—help build awareness and “Go Red” on National Wear Red Day¯, Friday, February 3, 2012. Every year, thousands of hospitals, small businesses, multinational corporations, news broadcasters, schools, individuals and even landmarks “Go Red” to build awareness around the issue of women and heart disease. Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of women, but that statistic can change with your help.

Show your support on National Wear Red Day by simply wearing red. Or get more involved by helping organize an event at your workplace, school or local organization. You can also raise funds with the AHA's easy-to use Wear Red Day fundraising tool.

The American Heart Association works every day to fund research and fight this killer so more women can be saved. And you can help! Visit to build your own fundraising page and help raise funds for important education and research needed to help fight heart disease.

© 2012 American Heart Association, Inc.