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Published February 10, 2012, 12:45 PM

Sanford cardiologists bucking trend in male-dominated field

FARGO - For four female physicians at Sanford Health in Fargo, work is where the heart is. In a medical specialty traditionally dominated by men, these four women are heart doctors.

FARGO - For four female physicians at Sanford Health in Fargo, work is where the heart is.

In a medical specialty traditionally dominated by men, these four women are heart doctors.

Three of Sanford’s nine cardiologists are female and one of the hospital’s two heart surgeons is a woman.

Dr. Roxanne Newman has been a cardiothoracic surgeon here since 1993, when Sanford was known as MeritCare. Newman is perhaps best known as the surgeon in the country’s first live webcast of a robotically assisted heart surgery in 2002.

In 2004, Dr. Susan Farkas, a cardiologist, joined the heart team. And last fall, Drs. JoEllen Kohlman-Petrick and Christina McDowell also became Sanford cardiologists.

This places the Fargo health care system well ahead of national trends. Although the number of female medical school graduates in the U.S. has more than tripled from 1975 to 2000, relatively few women choose to become cardiologists or heart surgeons.

In 2001, just 10 percent of cardiology trainees were women and 6 percent of American College of Cardiology Fellows were female, according to Women in U.S. Academic Medicine statistics.

Now, just in time for American Heart Month and the Go Red for Women campaign, we visited with these four doctors.

We talked to them about what inspired them to become heart specialists, what too many women don’t know about heart disease and what they themselves do to keep their hearts moving to the right beat.

How unusual is it for a hospital’s cardiac team to have so many women?

Kohlman-Petrick: Historically, cardiology has been a male-dominated field but in the past few years there has been a trend toward more female cardiologists and interventional cardiologists. We are seeing this trend at Sanford cardiology as well.

What inspired you to specialize in this particular area?

Farkas: I decided to be a cardiologist when I was 18 years old and never changed or regretted it. I worked a summer job at the heart hospital and that was the time when the new equipment – the so-called echocardiogram – started. Also, I took care of heart attack patients. At that time, they were bed-confined for four weeks, but also that was the time when we started to do angiograms and thrombolytic therapy (resolving clots in coronary arteries). All of it was very exciting.

McDowell: I chose to specialize in this area because I like the fact that cardiology can help so many people in so many ways. Certainly treating heart disease is important, but there is a lot of work to be done on the prevention side of things.

Kohlman-Petrick: I believe cardiology is a specialty that is continually evolving. Our treatment strategies are improving, the medications we use are improving and we are making significant technologic advances.

How did the prospect of working with other female cardiac specialists play a role in attracting you to this particular heart team?

Farkas: I was the only woman cardiologist when I joined the group and was happy to see a woman cardiothoracic surgeon.

Kohlman-Petrick: I think female physicians can bring a unique perspective to patient care and I feel privileged to be able to work with such outstanding physicians as Drs. Newman, Farkas and McDowell. They all truly have the patient’s best interests at heart.

What is the one thing you wish more women knew about heart care?

McDowell: One in three women will be diagnosed with heart disease in her lifetime. One in 12 will be diagnosed with breast cancer. I think there still is a huge misconception regarding the risk of developing cancer versus cardiovascular disease in women. We need to get the word out.

Newman: The longer you wait, the more dangerous it is. No matter if it’s a heart attack or not, women should never ignore symptoms. Even if you’re not sure, get it checked out. No one is going to criticize you for showing up in the ER.

Farkas: Listen to your heart and don’t be shy to say if something is wrong. Go and have it checked out. Also, don’t start smoking. (People should) know what kind of damage they do to their bodies.

We know women with heart trouble can experience different symptoms from what men can. How can those symptoms differ?

McDowell: The symptoms that women may experience during a heart attack can be similar to those in men, such as chest pain, left-sided arm and jaw pain, but women are more likely to experience other symptoms. These include nausea, vomiting, feeling short of breath and just “not feeling right.” Unfortunately, women tend to downplay their symptoms and delay seeking treatment for several hours due to a variety of reasons.

Kohlman-Petrick: When a woman is having a heart attack, it is not uncommon for her to complain of symptoms other than chest pain. She can present with shortness of breath, nausea, abdominal pain (and) neck or shoulder pain, just to name a few.

Newman: Unfortunately, the way the media portrays heart attacks isn’t accurate, so people don’t always realize they are having one.

Are mortality rates different for women with heart trouble than men? If so, why?

Kohlman-Petrick: Mortality rates are actually higher in women than men. This is because in the past heart disease was considered a disease of men, so women often ignore their symptoms or attribute their symptoms to something other than possible heart disease.

Farkas: Mainly due to late presentation, diffuse (widespread) coronary artery disease that is too advanced at the time they present. They also tend to be older with more comorbidities. Also, their small coronary arteries are less suitable for stents and even bypass surgery is challenging.

Do you think we’ve made progress in educating and treating women on this issue?

Kohlman-Petrick: I do believe that we have made great strides in educating and treating women with heart disease through such programs as the Go Red Campaign, which is increasing awareness of heart disease in women.

Farkas: Clearly. Thanks to the effort of the AHA (American Heart Association) and also the media and hospital cooperation, which have resulted in the spread of knowledge, advertisements, resources, etc.

How do you take care of your own heart?

McDowell: I exercise daily – either running, classes at the gym, walking, lifting weights. This is a very important part of my life and a great stress reliever as well. I am pretty conscious about what I eat. I don’t eat red meat or chicken, but do eat fish. Diet and exercise have always been important to me. My background is nutrition and exercise physiology.

Kohlman-Petrick: No matter how busy and chaotic my life may be, I always take time out of every day to exercise. I obviously don’t smoke either. Lastly, I try to follow a heart-healthy diet by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, minimize my red meat consumption and minimize sweets.

Farkas: I run 10k in the Fargo Marathon with my husband. I do Zumba at least twice a week and weight lift. I also watch my weight and check my cholesterol and blood sugar regularly.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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