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SALT LAKE CITY — The stress of the global pandemic is taking a big toll, especially on women, who are often caregivers. With heart disease as the leading cause of death among women, experts warn about the danger of too much stress. One Utah mother shares how she came to understand the importance of caring for herself.
Libby Mortimer is a fun, energetic, busy mother of five who's always enjoyed good health. "Truly like the epitome of health. Never a problem," she explained.
But on Father's Day 2019, everything changed.
"I just felt pressure in my chest, shooting down my arms and I even thought, "This sounds like a heart attack, but I'm 38, so I know I'm not having a heart attack," she said.
Yet her worst nightmare came true. "I just looked at my baby and I thought, 'If something happens to me, she's alone so I better call an ambulance,'" she said. "I ended up having 13 heart attacks while I was in hospital."
Mortimer had suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, tearing the left anterior descending artery (LAD). "They had my husband come to the hospital and said, 'We hope you have all of your affairs in order. We have to discuss your wife's health condition,'" Mortimer said.
After single-bypass open heart surgery and spending a month in the hospital, Mortimer feels grateful to be alive. "It was just a true miracle," she said.
But it hasn't been easy. "The reality of those things are just traumatizing… I have developed some pretty severe PTSD from it," Mortimer explained. "I've had anything from you know the crazy heartbeats, the tremors, the flashbacks, headaches, nausea."
Intermountain Healthcare's Sheralee Petersen, a certified physician assistant at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute, says these physiological symptoms are common after suffering traumatic events and point to the dangers of chronic stress.
"We are physiologically and biologically built to handle stress in short bursts," she said. "But when you're running from the tiger for an entire year, it just turns into like this chronic stress experience and that's really what we're starting to see."
Petersen said research shows the number of women suffering from stress cardiomyopathy, or the broken heart syndrome, increased fourfold at the beginning of the pandemic.
She said stress hormones can put women at a higher risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, higher cholesterol, inflammation, and atherosclerosis, which often precede cardiovascular disease. "It could represent or present itself down the road as heart attack or stroke or ultimately heart failure," she said.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for women — and the risk only increases for postmenopausal women.
That's why she's urging women to prioritize self-care.
"In order for you to show up to your fullest capacity or the best version of yourself, you have to take care of yourself first," Petersen said.
Most women play some sort of caregiving role, whether that's to a child, spouse, parent, or neighbor. Those caregiving responsibilities have only increased during the pandemic. "Women tend to play more caregiver roles than men and because of that, there's an enhanced level of stress," Petersen explained.
Petersen said women are disproportionately affected for a variety of reasons. "They tend to defer their own self-care and it really puts them in a high-risk position to unfortunately experience the negative side effects of chronic stress," she said.
In order for you to show up to your fullest capacity or the best version of yourself, you have to take care of yourself first.
–Sheralee Petersen, certified physician assistant at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute
She urges women to first acknowledge their stress levels, study up about their own "stress mindset," which helps someone understand how they process stress, and make a plan to reduce their stress.
"Before I would be like, 'Great, take the Motrin and let's get moving,' and now I have to listen," Mortimer said.
Today, Mortimer is learning about the importance of taking the time to slow down and put her needs first. For Mortimer that includes exercise, journaling, praying and therapy. Mortimer said as she's worked through her PTSD, it's started to resolve some of her physical issues.
Mortimer urges other women to recognize their own limits: "To be super honest with themselves and just say, this is all I've got me today," she said. "If you don't start taking care of yourself, your body will shut you down at some point."
Petersen tells women they don't need to start a new yoga routine or make drastic changes to their routine. "It can be 'I have 10 minutes or five minutes a day, and I'm going to do some deep breathing and I'm going to do some gratitude journaling and I will phone that friend or set up a regular call where you just know with no filter you can say anything and still be loved,'" she said.
With the right self-care, Petersen said women can remain more resilient in challenging situations. "That threshold can be heightened when we take care of ourselves first," Petersen said.
For Mortimer, the extra effort has paid off.
"I'm trying to really listen and give my body what it needs versus marching over it. I've learned in the hardest of ways, I can't do anything if I'm not here," Mortimer said.