Heart Condition Fails to Shake the Faith of Chicago Latina

The evening started out like many family dinners at the home of Sara Campos, filled with delicious food, camaraderie and laughter.

But on one particular night in 2009, the meal would be far from ordinary. In fact, an uninvited guest nearly threatened Campos' life.

Campos, then 65, started to feel ill after dinner. Her stomach hurt and there was a burning sensation in her chest. Despite the discomfort, she wasn't overly concerned.

"We had tacos, and I figured it was indigestion," Campos recalled.

She took an antacid, but nothing seemed to help. The pain in her chest persisted.

A family friend suggested Campos might be having a heart attack. But it wasn't a heart attack. Tests revealed Campos had congestive heart failure.

Heart failure is a chronic, progressive disease in which the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently enough to meet the body's needs. The condition affects nearly six million people nationwide with about 870,000 new cases reported annually, making it one of the most common, costly and deadly heart diseases in America.

The leading causes of heart failure are coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. There are ways to manage and treat the condition, yet one in nine deaths include heart failure as a contributing cause.

Although Campos knew the name of her condition, there was little clarity about what it meant. Upon diagnosis, she learned her heart failure was a consequence of damage caused by the chemotherapy she underwent for her breast cancer treatment nine years earlier.

"It was such a shock for me," said Campos, now 71, who lives in a suburb outside of Chicago. "I wish had known about heart failure. If I would have known about heart failure and its symptoms, I could have noticed it sooner."

Campos is not alone. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for Latinos, who are much less aware about cardiovascular diseases as a danger to their health; they also are not as likely to know about their risk factors compared to Caucasians. Awareness is critical, medical professionals point out, because it is the first step toward prevention.

In response to this public health issue, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently launched Rise Above Heart Failure, aimed at changing the course of heart failure in the United States through awareness, education and support. The initiative's goals are to reduce heart failure hospitalizations by 10% and increase awareness and understanding of this potentially deadly condition by 10% by 2020.

There is a wide gap in knowledge about the risks and toll of heart failure among Latin-Americans. Although there is little data on heart failure incidents in Latinos, a 2009 report found that they have the second-highest risk of developing the condition, behind African-Americans. The incidence of heart failure in Latinos is 3.5 per 1,000 person-years compared with 4.6 per 1,000 person-years in African-Americans and 2.4 per 1,000 person-years in Caucasians.

Latinos with heart failure are also more likely to be younger, have diabetes or high blood pressure, and be overweight/obese.

"Hispanics should be concerned about heart failure. However, the risk factors are very different depending on where Hispanics come from," said Ileana Piña, M.D., cardiologist, American Heart Association national volunteer and associate chief of Academic Affairs, Division of Cardiology, Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Nobody is exempt from heart failure."

Last year in its journal, Circulation, the American Heart Association said that Latinos carry a heavy burden of heart disease and stroke, stressing the need for customized, culturally-tailored approaches to improving their heart health. The statement was the first to describe the burden of cardiovascular disease among the diverse population with origins in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Central and South America.

"We have a long way to go to get the education message out to the patients," Piña said. "There is a lack of recognition of heart failure symptoms within the community."

Living with heart failure

A heart failure diagnosis does not mean a death sentence, particularly if a patient follows treatment as prescribed by a doctor, controls high blood pressure and/or diabetes and improves diet and exercise.

"Heart failure patients can have a good quality of life. If we can keep them out of the hospital, we can keep them doing what they want to do," Piña said.

After overcoming breast cancer, Campos faced her medical diagnosis head on to manage life with heart failure.

She changed her diet and significantly reduced her sodium intake. Campos uses fresh herbs and produce to spice up her cooking and keep dishes flavorful, including fresh onions, tomatoes and garlic. The family also incorporated more vegetables and salads into their meals.

She is also in regular contact with her doctor to make sure her heart isn't getting significantly weaker. Campos also tries to keep active through walking, but must be careful not to wear herself out.

Despite her difficult health journey, Campos remains optimistic.

"I've been blessed," she said. "God has been good to me -- even through my trials."

Visit the American Heart Association Support Network to learn and share with others if you or someone you care about has experienced a stroke, heart attack or is living with a heart condition.