Rationalizations can kill.
An active 53-year-old, Joni Ullrich explained away her chest pains when they first cropped up last summer, attributing it to her acid reflux.
When she began to feel winded more easily, she decided she needed to work out more.
Three weeks later, after a swim with her sister and a date with her husband, Ullrich walked out of a theater and was hit with intense chest pains. Her arms felt heavy and tingly. By the time she got to the car, she was sweating and couldn't get her breath.
Her husband asked if she was OK. She said, "I think you need to take me to the hospital."
Then she prayed.
Luckily for Ullrich, she got treatment immediately. Surgeons put in two stents that opened up blockages of 99 percent and 70 percent in the main LAD artery in her heart known as the "widow-maker."
Ullrich was a keynote speaker at the American Heart Association's annual "Go Red for Women" event Friday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign. The campaign promotes awareness of heart disease in women.
"I once heard that the number-one sign of a heart attack is death. We cannot afford to ignore this issue of heart disease any more," Ullrich said. "We tend to think of heart disease as a man's issue, but it's the leading cause of death in women."
In fact, heart disease causes one in three deaths in women, more than all forms of cancer combined. Since 1984 more women than men have died of heart disease each year, according to the American Heart Association. About 43 million women are living with heart disease, and 90 percent of all women have at least one risk factor.
But until 1991, most heart research studies didn't include women, according to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who spoke before Ullrich. Clinical drug trials were usually conducted on young, white, adult males, and the results of those studies would be generalized to the entire population, she said.
"They would think that if a drug worked in a while male between the ages of 21 and 35, it would be effective in women, in children, in the aged, in different races," Wise said.
In 1991, when Bernadine Healy became head of the National Institutes of Health, she insisted that clinical trials be done on men and women, and that the results be reported by gender, Wise said.
Gender and race are large factors in heart disease. Hispanic women develop heart disease 10 years earlier than white women, on average, and nearly half of black women over age 20 have it, Wise said.
Wise, a physiologist who studied the effectiveness of estrogen in protecting the brain from strokes, had a research grant from NIH until 2012. She praised the Heart Association's willingness to fund research by young faculty members who were just getting started, saying it led to new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat heart disease.
Though she'd had borderline high cholesterol and high blood pressure for 10 years, Ullrich believes she was overlooked by her physicians "largely because I was a woman, and I didn't fit the typical profile of somebody with heart disease."
Family history plays a huge role, increasing a woman's risk of heart disease by 90 percent. Ullrich's grandfather died of his second heart attack on the dance floor, and both of her parents have had heard attacks.
Women can take steps to mitigate many risk factors, including obesity, physical inactivity, smoking and unhealthy eating habits, she said.
The "Go Red" campaign encourages women to visit their doctors, quit smoking, improve their diets and make other heart-healthy choices. The problem, Ullrich said, is that women tend to put others first.
"We juggle work, taking care of the kids, grocery shopping, getting dinner on the table. By the end of the day, there's little time for ourselves," she said.
Just as more women get yearly pelvic and breast exams, she said, women should see a cardiologist each year as part of their routine physicals.
"Don't let my story become your story," said Ullrich, who shared photos of her four children and two grandchildren during her talk. "If you can't do it for yourself, do it for your family."
Heart-attack survivor Joni Ullrich urges women to take three steps to fight heart disease:
1. If you have a history of heart disease in your family, get a checkup with your primary-care physician, and check your blood pressure and cholesterol. If there's an issue, see a cardiologist, who will help establish a benchmark. Let your doctor decide if you need to take medications.
2. Pay attention to your blood pressure and cholesterol. Keep a record, and if levels start to creep up, see a specialist.
3. If you have any warning signs of a heart attack, take action immediately. Your life could depend on it.