In 1987, when she was 40, Sarah Paddock was diagnosed with a form of heart disease known as atriofibrillation. Though she had heart trouble as a child, she was shocked to learn that cardiovascular disease could affect a woman her age.
She found out the hard way about the often-overlooked dangers of heart disease, especially in Native women.
"Women are sent for mammograms, but not many women are sent out to have their cholesterol checked," Paddock said. "They're not having a stress test. As a result, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women."
Heart disease kills far more women than all kinds of cancer, said Dr. Jana Linfield, a family physician with the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, a Native health care provider.
Genetics, smoking, high blood pressure, inactivity, obesity and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease, said Linfield. Young men have a higher risk for heart disease than do young women, but after menopause the risk for women grows.
Paddock was told to start exercising and eating healthy. But though the lifestyle changes were a serious matter for her health, she found she had trouble sticking to her new plan.
"I didn't have the motivation," she said. "I knew that I needed to be doing these things, but I think I needed to be kicked in the butt."
She found that motivation in March of 2002, when she joined WISEWOMAN, a program administered by SEARHC.
SEARHC started WISEWOMAN, which stands for Well Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation, three years ago. It is one of 13 pilot programs funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the rate of heart disease in American women.
The WISEWOMAN program used to accept women between the ages of 40 and 64. But with the help of a recent federal grant, the program is now available to women in their 30s. It is open to SEARHC beneficiaries and to non-Natives who meet income-eligibility requirements.
"Women tend to set their lifestyle pattern in their 20s and 30s," said Nancy Knapp, who manages the WISEWOMAN program from her office in Sitka.
Nine hundred women in Southeast, including 200 in Juneau, learn in WISEWOMAN how to incorporate exercise into their daily life, eat better and reduce stress.
Lynda Koski, a registered nurse, and Gayle Waltzer, a health educator, run the Juneau program. Every Sunday, they organize an hour of free swimming at the Augustus Brown Swimming Pool. They also hold weekly gatherings at SEARHC.
"We try to have different topics each Thursday related to nutrition, physical activity, stress," Koski said. "That can be yoga stretches, cooking classes - it's just kind of a variety."
Linfield counsels all of her patients to exercise 30 minutes a day. Though some do it on their own, many are motivated by programs such as WISEWOMAN.
"I think there are definitely women that have really benefited greatly and made major lifestyle changes because of the program," she said. "They've become much more active, really looked at their diet, brought their cholesterol down, and are able to control their blood pressure. So they've lowered their risk factors."
The program works by giving women the support they need to stick to healthy living, Knapp said.
Smokers are put on a smoking-cessation program that involves free nicotine patches and gum from SEARHC and regular follow-up calls from nurses.
All participants are given a pedometer and are encouraged to walk at least 10,000 steps a day. They are reimbursed $15 per month for a gym membership.
If participants start exercising regularly, other healthy habits often fall in line, Knapp said.
"If you exercise and you're a smoker, it's tough," she said. "You want to walk, but you have to breathe harder, so you say, 'Wow, I want to quit smoking.' Then from there they make healthy eating choices."
Though she doesn't have any official results from the first three years of the program, Knapp is compiling data and said her initial impression is that the program has helped increase the health of Native women in Southeast.
Paddock, who has lost a little bit of weight since joining the program and considers herself much more energetic, has made some "big changes" in her life, she said. She walks more, eats less beef, meditates daily and writes in a journal.
"We lead high-stress lives, trying to juggle our jobs and our families and not really taking care of ourselves," said Paddock, who said she developed her heart disease during a particularly stressful period in her life. "I really believe stress has something to do with it."
Ninety-five percent of the women in the program list stress as a major part of their lives, said Koski.
To find out if you are eligible for WISEWOMAN, call SEARHC in your community or visit its Web page at www.searhc.org.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.