Susan Knell has been an educator all her life. Now she’s teaching a lifesaving new lesson.
An assistant professor in the Pittsburg State University curriculum and instruction department, she is one of 65 recent graduates of the annual WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic. Designated as a WomenHeart Champion, she hopes to educate area women on heart health issues, including how to live a heart-healthy life and how to recognize the symptoms of heart disease.
Knell knows how important that is. Despite the fact that she has three college degrees, including a doctorate from the University of Arkansas, she didn’t recognize the symptoms of the heart attack she had on Jan. 15, 2009.
“I waited four days to do anything about it, which was crazy,” Knell said. “I had gone to Lawrence because my daughter had a health issue. I felt like there was an elephant on my chest and I was breathless, but I thought it was stress because of my daughter. I actually went shopping while I was in Lawrence. I bought a vest that I now call my heart attack vest.”
She developed a headache on the way home and later became nauseated, but just assumed that she had a flu bug. Finally, on Jan. 19, she went to Curves and was unable to do the exercise machines.
“The women there told me I had to go to the hospital,” Knell said. “I was told I’d had a heart attack, but it had happened a few days earlier. Then I got to take a helicopter ride to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. I also have kidney disease, and they felt I should be near my kidney doctor.”
She will be going on dialysis because of her genetic kidney problem. “I always knew I had that problem, but the heart attack hit me out of left field,” Knell said.
She had stents inserted to open blocked cardiac arteries. “While I was in the hospital, two women visited me and brought me a gift bag,” Knell said. “They had information about heart disease in women and they gave me a red knit neck scarf.”
She learned many surprising things about women and heart disease. “It is the leading killer of women in America,” Knell said. “Six times more women die from heart disease than from breast cancer. While both men and women suffer with heart attack, women are less likely than men to survive, and are more likely to have a second heart attack.”
She has also learned that Crawford County has the dubious honor of having the highest number of heart-related deaths in Kansas. Despite that, there are no support groups for women with heart disease in the Pittsburg or Joplin area.
Knell decided she wanted to do something about this issues. She was one of 65 women from across the nation, all heart disease survivors, selected through a competitive process to attend the symposium at Mayo Cliinc.
Page 2 of 2 - “There were women as young as 23 in the group, with heart problems I’d never heard of,” she said. “The symposium was unbelievable. We learned about nutrition, about depression and other mental health issues that can occur with heart disease. And we learned to advocate.”
This is vital, she said, because there is still so much misinformation about women and heart disease. One mistaken notion is that women must be advanced in age before they are at risk. Knell heard stories from women who were first told that their symptoms were “all in their head” and they should go home and relax.
“We women need to do a better job of getting in our doctors’ faces so that we’re taken seriously,” she said.
One problem is that women frequently have different symptoms when they suffer an attack than men do.
“It’s not always a grab-your-chest moment,” Knell said. “People asked me if I had pain going down my left arm. Some women do, but many don’t. I didn’t — I felt pressure in my chest, I was breathless, I had a headache and I got sick. ”
In addition to wanting to start a support group, Knell would also like to promote steps to help prevent heart disease.
“I’d like to see classes in low-fat, low-sodium cooking, and an emphasis on quitting smoking,” she said. “I’m also available as a speaker for civic organizations and other groups.”
At PSU, Knell specializes in teaching courses in reading and children’s and young adult literature for future teachers. Her subject matter as a WomenHeart volunteer may be different, but her teaching method will remain the same. “I’ve always tried to teach my students to teach with heart,” she noted.
Anyone wishing to contact her may e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.