Heart disease — not breast cancer — kills more women in the United States than any other health condition. Still, many women are not aware of the danger.
To complicate matters, heart attacks in women aren’t always accompanied by the crushing chest pain that men often experience. Sometimes the symptoms are more subtle — like fatigue, dizziness, nausea, clammy sweats and pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw or arms.
The “HeartScarves” program was developed in response to the feelings of fear that many women experience as a result of their heart disease, and symbolize the underdiscussed heart risk many women face. These handmade gifts are brought to heart patients within hospitals across the country, to offer support and comfort for women during their recovery and beyond.
“If they’re a patient in the hospital with any kind of heart issue, we will give them a red scarf,” says Chris Messick, RN, manager of Scripps La Jolla’s cardiac treatment center. “And the women who are part of the cardiac rehab program also get a scarf. It’s a part of our efforts to increase awareness and educate women about the risk of heart disease.”
Part of WomenHeart’s “Red Bag of Courage”— which contains information to support women in their recovery — the scarves are often cherished objects. Lisa Ferguson underwent a mitral valve repair at Scripps. Now she volunteers, knitting and distributing scarves.
“My scarf came with a note saying it was made by a woman with heart disease,” Ferguson says. “That connection was reassuring — just knowing it came from someone in the same position.”
For many women, heart disease can be an isolating experience. Ferguson, who is in her 50s, recalls going through cardiac rehab with men in their 60s and older. They didn’t have the same experience she did. But WomenHeart and Scripps helped connect her to women with similar issues.
Now she pays it forward, distributing scarves, information and empathy. The program has been so successful that there is a scarf backlog. Scripps La Jolla volunteers are busy knitting and filling the gap.
“The scarf is a lovely talking point,” Ferguson says. “Some of our Scripps patients are also knitters and it gets the discussion started. Making a connection and having a community are so important to healing.”