ATLANTA - Kathy Coletti's heart couldn't have been happier at the birth of her children.
But unrecognized cardiovascular problems nearly took her from them and her husband, Phil, before the little ones left the hospital.
After years of trying to conceive, of moving between hope and despair, she and Phil had finally welcomed quadruplets into their family: two boys, two girls. All healthy.
But within days of their arrival on April 24, 1995, Kathy Coletti started to get progressively weaker until she suffered a major heart attack.
A week later, she and the quadruplets were still at Northside Hospital in Atlanta when she had a second heart attack.
I had what is known as SCAD, or spontaneous coronary artery dissection. It is the No. 1 cause of heart attack in pregnant and postpartum women, but most labor and delivery nurses still aren't aware of it, she said.
She was 36, and nearly a decade would pass before the American Heart Association would launch its Go Red movement, combining consumerism and altruism in its fight against heart disease.
Go Red for Women is credited with funding millions of dollars of research specific to cardiovascular disease in women, raising awareness and thus decreasing the number of women who die from it.
When we started this campaign 10 years ago, about 500,000 women were dying each year, said Erica Ross, director of metro Atlanta's Go Red for Women. Today that number is down to about 450,000 each year, so we still have quite a bit of work to do. Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of women, Ross said. It kills one woman in every three. Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease, and the gap between men's and women's survival continues to widen. Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing the disease.
The Go Red for Women movement was designed to close that gap by spreading awareness, encouraging women to focus on their heart health, and advocating for policies that support research and science related to improving these statistics, she said.
Coletti became interested in the campaign the moment she heard about it 10 years ago.
I started to buy promotional items and collecting and passing out pins and information brochures about warning signs, what you needed to know about heart disease, she said. I'd leave them in doctors' waiting rooms and give them to everyone I knew.
She does not want others to go through what she endured.
After her second heart attack, one of Coletti's nurses knew something wasn't right.
The nurse pulled Phil Coletti aside with a warning.
You've got to find someone to help with this or she is not going to survive, the nurse told him.
Phil Coletti immediately found a cardiologist who told him his wife had a dissection or split between the layers of the wall of a blood vessel (artery) that provides blood flow to the heart. After consulting with his colleagues, the doctor transferred Kathy to nearby Saint Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta.
Kathy's heart was in bad shape. Doctors performed a quadruple bypass surgery.
It worked out well in the end, but unfortunately I have a lot of scar tissue and my heart is not as strong as I'd like it to be, Kathy Coletti said. The only way to improve is to have a stem cell transfer down the road. At least I have hope that in 10 years, I will be able to have my heart back. And for that, she said, her family is eternally grateful not only to the doctors at Northside and Saint Joseph's but for the work the American Heart Association does on behalf of women.
Gratitude yields action When Coletti was invited last year to tell her story at the annual Go Red for Women luncheon, she said, one of her children quickly reminded her it's only because you're still alive. They laughed, of course, but that's the whole point.
Coletti and her husband have dedicated their lives to raising awareness about heart disease.
Phil Coletti was so grateful for the doctors at Saint Joseph's, Kathy said, he began immediately volunteering at the hospital and has since become chairman of the board of directors, the same one he had persuaded years earlier to fund a cardiac center dedicated to women.
What happened to me is rare, but when it happens, it is very life-threatening, Coletti said. It was more than horrific, but fortunately, the doctors at Saint Joseph recognized it and knew what to do.
My husband and I are so amazed. In March, we'll celebrate 25 years of marriage. The good thing is here I am, we're all healthy and all doing great and there is now more awareness. I'm very excited about working with Go Red. After the kids are off to college, I plan to become more involved and make it my life's work.
Heart symptoms common to women:
• Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
• Pressure, pain or discomfort in the lower chest, upper back or upper abdomen, neck or in one or both arms
• Being dizzy, lightheaded, faint, or breaking into a cold sweat
• Feeling like you have the flu
• Chest pain
Source: Katherine Gallagher, associate professor of surgery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a member of the Society for Vascular Surgery