By Cynthia Koons
They were more likely the grandparents of college students. but they were still ready and willing students – prepared to learn about their hearts.
It was the day before Valentine's Day, but there were no love lessons. Just cold, hard facts about the risks of female cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer of women before cancer, domestic violence and AIDS.
New York Hospital Queens launched the Women's HeartAdvantage program with free cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar screenings Friday along with talks from medical professionals and a free lunch.
Judith Giuliani, a nurse and wife of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, delivered the keynote address promoting awareness and prevention of cardiovascular disease.
“Here in Queens, as in every other borough, heart disease is the leading killer of our mothers, sisters, aunts,” she said. “About 70 percent of African-American women, 67 percent of Hispanic women and 57 percent of Caucasian women have at least one risk factor for heart disease and are unaware.”
She urged the audience of about 200 people, mostly women and some men, to take advantage of the free screenings that the hospital will be offering.
“As a registered nurse, I'm a believer in practical advice,” she said. “Don't smoke. Exercise regularly. Eat healthy and get regular checkups.”
Dr. Maria Aronis, who spoke after Giuliani, said 42 percent of women's deaths are attributable to heart disease – a surprising comparison to breast cancer, which accounts for only 4 percent of women's deaths.
“After age 60, the risk of heart disease goes up exponentially,” she said.
Debra Tillis, a heart attack survivor, said her cardiovascular problems manifested themselves when she was 52.
“I clearly remember my heart attack,” she said. “I was lying in bed, watching TV with my husband and all of a sudden I had a horrible pain in my chest.”
She said her husband took her to the New York Hospital Queens emergency room.
“By the time we got here, I could barely walk,” she said. “To this day, I am still not the person I was before my heart attack. We women are so busy being caretakers we forget to take care of ourselves.”
She also had sound advice for the women in the audience, most of whom gasped when they learned she had had a heart attack at 52.
“Learn all you can, become your own health advocate, have a good relationship with your doctor,” she urged. “Don't become a statistic.”
Arline Staub, a Bayside resident, said she came to the symposium to learn a few things about her heart.
“It's wonderful that we're getting educated,” she said. She said her sister-in-law, who was with her, told her about the event.
“I'm more determined to do what my boyfriend always tells me not to do – walk.”
Other attendees said they knew most of the message already, but came out for the free screenings.
“It's always good to hear it, you read it, it's good to hear it – especially from someone who experienced it,” said Katarina Spitzer, a Flushing resident.
Another couple, Gita Rao and her husband G. Rao, said they already have heart-healthy habits.
“Our lifestyle is such that what we do we don't have to change,” the husband said.
Staub said she will definitely heed more of her personal-trainer son's advice.
“He tells me the only life you save is your own,” Staub.
Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at email@example.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.