In a private moment, Lou Sutton Nolan confronted the possibility that she could be facing an incredibly serious health challenge.
That private moment turned very public when she later volunteered to become a Providence Red Dress Ambassador and a spokesperson for women and heart disease.
When she speaks candidly to groups of women about heart disease, early detection and dealing with the reality of this often silent killer, she speaks from the heart. And from firsthand experience.
Earlier this year, she gave the keynote address under the State House dome at the 2007 Red Dress Rally. To a hushed crowd, she revealed the fear that had crept over her as she experienced a peculiar prickling feeling on the outer side of her left breast. Over time, the sensation repeated itself, and her fear intensified.
At that point, she refused to allow herself to attribute the prickles to a heart problem. Later, she learned the chilling statistic that 12 times more women die of heart disease than of breast cancer.
A regular in her fitness class and an avid walker, Lou astutely made it a practice to divide her annual medical appointments between her internist and her gynecologist. "That way, I have two opportunities a year to have things checked," the pragmatic Lou says. She requested that her internist, Dr. Vaughn Barnick, check out the prickles during her annual physical. "And now we have to deal with this," Dr. Barnick told her. The prickle had shown up as a blip on her EKG, and more tests were ordered.
A heart catheterization revealed that she had substantial blockage in her left main artery, posing a significant threat. A heart attack was a real danger.
Any other December, Lou would have been at home wrapping gifts. But a few days after the catheterization, she was wrapped in a sterile hospital gown, steeling herself for open heart surgery.
Providence cardiologist Dr. Daniel Bouknight and cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Robert Zurcher spent a great deal of time explaining the procedure in detail. With the support of her family, Lou and her medical team quickly reached a consensus: the surgery should not be postponed.
Her family was pleasantly surprised with Providence cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Baker Allen's early post-surgery report to those in the waiting room.
"He came out to the waiting room a lot sooner than my family had expected," says Lou, "and he explained the surgery had gone well. Instead of harvesting arteries from my leg, they were able to redirect the mammary artery, bypassing the blockage."
She has nothing but high praise for the professionalism of Drs. Bouknight, Allen and Zurcher and all the other members of her health care team at Providence.
Only a few days after her open-heart surgery, Lou's neighbors saw the recovering patient out for a walk on Christmas Day. She attributes her quick comeback to her penchant for fitness. "I've always taken care of myself," says Lou, who returned very shortly to workouts at her health club and walks of two-to-three miles each.
"I urge women to listen to their bodies," she says. "I can't emphasize that enough."
And she recognizes how lucky she is to have a very supportive family who, with her wonderful network of neighbors and friends, inspired her to ask the question:
"How could I be sick, when everyone made me feel so good?"