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For Chemainus woman it wasn’t aging, it was heart valve disease

February 22 is Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day
Kathy Howes of Chemainus stands with her husband Rob. Howes was diagnosed with heart valve disease during a pre-op examination for a knee replacement. Her advice to others is listen to your heart, and to talk to someone about your heart health if abnormal symptoms begin to arise. Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day is Feb. 22. (Courtesy of Kathy Howes)

Kathy Howes has always prided herself on being active, and upon her retirement in 2021 was looking forward to walking more on the Trans Canada Trail near her Chemainus home on Vancouver Island. But then she was plagued by unfamiliar symptoms such as dizziness, fainting, anxiety, fatigue and a racing heartbeat — she just didn’t feel like herself.

To her surprise a test revealed she needed heart valve surgery.

More than a million Canadians just like Howes are affected by heart valve disease, but awareness of the signs and symptoms is shockingly low. Symptoms are not always severe and can be mistaken as part of the natural aging process. People with heart valve disease do not always even have symptoms, even if their disease is severe, and women and men with symptoms can present differently.

That’s why Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day on Feb. 22 is so important to Howes and others.

Howes, who used to work for a local HVAC company, and has lived in Chemainus for the past 21 years, said it was very challenging when certain symptoms began to present themselves, because it didn’t match how she was feeling, which led to her feeling a lot of frustration.

“My family noticed the changes as well, but I just kept on going,” said Howes. “It’s like the story of the frog in the hot water, after a while you start thinking that’s what’s normal — but it’s not.”

Heart valve disease involves damage to one or more of the heart’s valves. While not all types are serious, others can lead to major complications — including death. Valve damage reduces blood flow which means the heart must work harder, and the body gets less oxygen, leading to a number of symptoms including: shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness or near fainting, as well as chest discomfort, pressure, and palpitations. Fortunately, heart valve disease can usually be successfully treated with valve repair or replacement in patients of all ages and ethnicities.

Howes discovered she needed heart valve surgery for Mitral Valve disease during a pre-op examination for a knee replacement. She said that after her surgery one of the hospital’s nurse-practitioners helped her understand that all of the symptoms she had been feeling were heart related. Howes was also told that heart issues can present differently in women.

READ MORE: PODCAST: Carolyn Thomas talks Women’s Heart Health

“I finally felt validated, I had thought I was failing or being lazy, but it was my heart valve all along,” Howes said.

Heart Valve Voice Canada is leading an awareness campaign called “Listen to Your Heart” in partnership with the Alliance for Aging and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society. The campaign goals are to improve early detection of heart valve disease by educating Canadians on the importance of stethoscope checks, especially for those ages 60-plus. Heart valve disease can be present at birth or develop from damage later in life from calcification, other cardiovascular diseases and conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure, certain infections and inflammation, or radiation to the chest — when symptoms aren’t clear, a heart murmur is the most important clue.

Since Howes’s surgery she has been back in the garden tackling big projects and has been finding balance as a regular practicing yogi. Howes wants to let people know how important it is to recognize Heart Valve Awareness Day and to not be afraid to ask questions when abnormal symptoms begin to arise. To be better informed visit the Heart Valve Voice Canada website. Heart Valve Voice Canada is a non-profit that raises public awareness of heart valve disease and engages patients, and care providers to educate, support, and advocate for Canadians with heart valve disease.

“Listen to your body and don’t ignore signs that something is not right. I am living proof, trust yourself and don’t back down,” said Howes. “Heart Valve Disease can be different for everyone. There is so much hope and getting a new valve is a game changer. Just don’t wait too long to get support. Be sure to educate yourself. Be your own advocate. Know and recognize your symptoms. I remember when I was in the hospital and feeling well another patient was surprised I had my Mitral Valve replaced. It does come with its challenges and recovery time but the end game is worth it. Be sure you get a stethoscope check and have a doctor listen to you heart.”

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

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