"To me, it’s just as easy to smile as it is to frown," says Betti Earnest, 76, of Romance. "Life is too short to not enjoy it." Earnest (second from right) is pictured among other heart diseases survivors wearing red at Unity Health's Heart-to-Heart Fireside Chat at Harding University earlier this year.
Photos by Tara Thomas
By Tara Thomas
Betti Earnest had been experiencing a subtle yet unusual feeling in her chest for three weeks. Earnest, now 76, of Romance had otherwise been in seemingly good physical health, dancing almost nightly at Sugar Loaf Dance Center in Heber Springs.
Upon Earnest's yearly health checkup, doctors at Unity Health-White County Medical Center discovered that she had 80 to 90 percent blockage inside the main valve of her heart, she said.
"They call it the widow maker," Earnest said. "It felt like I had a concrete block sometimes [in my chest]. The main thing that got her [Dr. Katherine Durham's] attention was when I said that I couldn't do the Dosey Doe. ... It was hard to breath. Those are the only symptoms I had.
"That went on for about three weeks before I went to the doctor. The only reason I didn't go to the doctor sooner is because I already had an appointment for my yearly checkup."
Upon discovery of the extreme blockage in her valve, doctors acted quickly. A life-saving heart stent procedure was promptly performed on Earnest at Unity Health White County Medical Center in 2013.
However, years prior to her heart stent procedure, Earnest learned that she had a degree of blockage when a heart catheter procedure captured images of plaque in her heart valve, but not a significant enough amount to warrant surgery, she said.
"Dr. [Reid] Thomas had done a stress test [on a treadmill] and I didn't pass it," Earnest said. "I told him, 'You realize I'm walking uphill, don't you?' We laughed, but then he caught me because I gave out.
"I went from that stress test straight to the hospital and they did a heart catheter, but my blockage wasn't severe enough to need anything done. That's when I told Dr. Thomas I would never play on his treadmill ever again."
She said she had had a heart catheter procedure performed before "with Dr. [John] Henderson."
"Dr. Reid Thomas found the problem [this time] and while I was sitting there in his office, he called Dr. Durham and made me an appointment for the next day. I went in the next day and I was in the hospital having surgery," Earnest said.
She said that she felt very well, almost immediately after the stent surgery.
"I feel great," she said. "I have felt great from day one. She [Dr. Durham] said, 'No, I didn't give her permission to go dancing that soon.'"
Durham said at a Heart-to-Heart Fireside Chat earlier this year at Harding University that women discuss breast health often and openly encourage one another to receive regular breast cancer screenings, but seem to neglect opening dialogue of the No. 1 killer of women: heart disease.
"One in 22 women die of breast cancer and we don't have any problem talking about going to get our mammogram and encouraging our sisters and our mothers to get their mammograms and check out anything that's abnormal," Durham said. "One in two women die of heart disease; not one in twenty-two, but one in two.
"So, it's a conversation and we have to talk about it. Listen to the people around you and encourage them to go get checked out."
The ladies' annual luncheon celebrated survivors of heart disease and educated women about just how high their risk really is.
"Listen to what your body is telling you" was the resounding message to those in attendance, from survivors and doctors.
"There are so many symptoms actually, that a woman can have," Earnest said. "Like I say, mine was just heaviness in my chest. So any kind of symptom that's not normal to you and your body, get it checked out, don't wait."
"That's such good advice," Durham said. "You see women who do come to see us who do not have a lot of symptoms, but they do have a few risk factors."
"So many times a week, they'll say, 'I don't even know why I'm here and I'm sorry I'm wasting your time.' I'll say, 'Don't ever say that; don't say you're sorry. You're not wasting our time; You're being proactive about your health.'"
Earnest's husband of six years, 93-year-old Vietnam veteran Harold "Earnie" Earnest, accompanied his wife to the luncheon wearing red himself and also has escorted her to every doctor's appointment.
"I love this couple," Durham said. "He supports her. He encourages her. He comes to her appointments with her."
"The Lord blessed us," Earnest said. "We've both been very, very blessed."
Heart disease does not discriminate age among women, according to Earnest.
"You may be young -- a lot younger than I am -- but heart disease affects all ages," she said. "Someone was telling me that they lost a young lady, aged 31, to a massive heart attack."
Nearly 300,000 people die of heart disease each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"While some women have no symptoms, others experience angina, [which is] dull, heavy to sharp chest pain or discomfort or pain in the neck, jaw, throat or pain in the upper abdomen or back," the CDC said.
Symptoms may occur during rest, during physical activity or be triggered by mental stress.
"Sometimes, heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until a woman experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, an arrhythmia, or stroke," the CDC said.
Heart attack can be characterized by chest pain, upper back pain, indigestion, nausea, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Arrhythmia, also known as heart palpitations, is felt as flutterings in the chest.
Heart failure symptoms can be shortness of breath, fatigue and swelling of the feet, ankles, legs and abdomen.
According to the CDC, factors that may put one at a greater risk of heart disease are: diabetes, being overweight, poor diet, high blood pressure, smoking, physical inactivity and excessive use of alcohol.
Alarmingly, almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly from heart problems have no prior symptoms.
"If you just feel like it's out of whack, get a checkup, don't procrastinate," Earnest said. "Get it done."