At one point Debra was seeing a GP every two weeks, complaining of severe arm pain that would leave her drenched in sweat and complaining of neck palpitations.
Debra told him, and doctors at her local hospital, that her younger brother went into cardiac arrest aged just 35, and that her grandmother died at 50 following a heart attack. She told doctors she believed her heart was the cause of periodic and unpredictable pain that stopped her in her tracks.
One year after she first complained to her GP, and following many more medical appointments where she was dismissed as being “stressed” and “anxious”, Debra had a heart attack.
Countless stories like this have prompted the federal government to announce on Thursday that a National Women’s Health Advisory Council will be formed to address medical misogyny, chaired by the assistant health minister, Ged Kearney.
Council members will include medical and scientific experts, who will look at the healthcare offered to women and girls for menstruation, reproductive healthcare and menopause, and for conditions including heart disease, autism and cancer. The council will also examine medical consent and pain management.
“A combination of persistent social prejudice, medical ignorance and research exclusion is a health catastrophe for women,” Kearney said. “Women and girls deserve tailored and targeted healthcare that recognises and reflects their experiences and concerns.”
It is an announcement welcomed by Debra, who said she is certain she would have received faster treatment if she was a man, and that she would not wish her experience on anyone.
Debra’s GP never suspected a heart attack or ordered her to get heart tests, because he believed she had anxiety.
When Debra went to the small local hospital after particularly bad arm, neck and chest pain, they sent her away with painkillers. When her partner then drove her to the nearest major regional hospital, doctors there told her, “you must be under stress, clearly things aren’t well at home,” Debra said, crying at the memory of being repeatedly dismissed.
“No one would believe me,” she said.
Debra later demanded a referral to a cardiac specialist after her younger brother survived a cardiac arrest.
It was May before she could get an appointment, where she underwent a stress test and a CT coronary angiogram, an imaging test that looks at the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The specialist called her with her results one week later.
“He said I was not to do anything to put any stress on my heart because my coronary artery was completely blocked,” Debra said. “I was told to come back on Monday and see him and he would start me on medication, and that he would refer me to another specialist for surgery.”
But Debra had a heart attack two days after that phone call, and one day before her follow-up appointment. She required two stents in her heart during the lifesaving surgery.
“They lost me on the operating table at one point and had to bring in the resuscitation team,” she said.
Debra since learned her condition is hereditary, and her sons and other family members are being screened for heart disease.
“I remember the nurses came in after my surgery and hugged me, they were amazing,” she said. “After I told them about my symptoms, they felt so bad for me. The first thing one of the nurses said to me was: ‘If you had of been a male, you would have been seen by a specialist straight away’.”
Debra said the care from nurses, including ongoing care from her cardiac nurse from Hunter New England Health has helped her to undergo rehabilitation, feel heard and grow confident in returning to her usual activities.
According to Her Heart, Australia’s only not-for-profit focused on the prevention of women’s heart disease, women are under-diagnosed and under-treated. Women’s symptoms of heart attack present differently to symptoms seen in men. But because most medical research is conducted in studies of men, clinical guidelines, symptom checklists and treatments are tailored to men.
“My experience was horrific and it makes me so cranky and so hurt,” Debra said. “I know doctors are stressed and they work so much. But really, all they need to do is listen to women.”