Latina cardiologist puts women’s heart health in the spotlight
Dr. Maribel Hernandez was recognized as a Go Red Champion at the American Heart Association's annual Go Red for Women luncheon on May 11 for her work as a cardiologist and advocate for women's heart health
Heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues are the leading cause of death for female adults in the U.S., yet many women—and medical professionals—are not aware of the specific risks and symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease. But one Latina cardiologist has been leading the way in shedding light on what heart disease looks like in women, and what can be done to recognize and treat it sooner.
For her advocacy work and medical expertise, Dr. Maribel Hernandez was featured as a speaker on May 11 as a Go Red Champion at the American Heart Association’s 15th annual Go Red for Women luncheon, hosted this year at the Crystal Tea Room in Center City, Philadelphia with nearly 1,000 supporters in attendance. Dr. Hernandez was previously named the AHA Women of the Heart award winner at the same event in 2013, and has been recognized and honored by other organizations for her outreach in heart education for all women, especially Latinas.
“It’s a very great honor to be the representative of the American Heart Association, specifically the Go Red for Women campaign, since the purpose of the campaign is to educate women about heart problems in women,” said Dr. Hernandez of her recognition. In speaking at the event, Dr. Hernandez, a cardiologist specialized in electrophysiology for arrhythmia, represented not only the American Heart Association and the Go Red for Women campaign, but also the Lankenau Heart Institute and the Mainline Health System.
The disparity in research focus and resources for heart disease in women as opposed to heart conditions in men caught Dr. Hernandez’s attention while she was at Stanford studying cardiology - a specialization she chose due to her interest in the use of both medicine and technology in treating heart conditions. She discovered that women have unique risks for and symptoms of heart problems, but those risks are often ignored by women and medical professionals alike in favor of the more “traditional” risks and symptoms — despite the fact that heart attacks and strokes kill one in three women, more than all cancers combined, according to AHA data.
"As a cardiologist, I realized that women’s problems were being ignored,” she noted, describing how she began volunteering on her own time twenty years ago to educate women about female heart health and heart problems.
“The problem that we have is that neither women nor many doctors take into account those risks, and so one of the messages for me today is for all women and Latina women is to first of all, get to know your risk,” said Dr. Hernandez. “When you go to the doctor, ask them, do I have any risk for heart problems? If you have symptoms and they’re not paying attention to it, look for another doctor and another opinion. For Latina women specifically, we have a problem with lack of activity and exercise, and obesity, and that increases the risk for heart problems."
According to the cardiologist, some of the risk factors for heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems unique to women include: premature menopause, in the case of women who have had surgery or for some reason experience menopause at an earlier age, women who have had problems and complications with pregnancy, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, hypertension, women who have had radiation or chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, and women who have autoimmune or inflammatory diseases such as lupus.
These conditions are risk factors for women in addition to traditional risks, which include hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and lack of activity.
It is not only women whom Dr. Hernandez has worked to educate about risk factors for heart health. She noted that improving education for all medical professionals about women’s heart health “has been part of my mission.”
“I’m the director of a women’s heart program in my hospital, and we have programs to educate doctors and nurses and all of the personnel — nurse practitioners, medical assistants — because everyone needs to be aware that women have special risks, and can also experience symptoms that are different from what men experience,” she said.
Dr. Hernandez said her path to the medical profession was not easy, but perseverance and support in the form of loans and scholarships from Yale University, where she completed her undergraduate degree, and Stanford University, where she attended medical school, helped her achieve her dreams even though she did not have a wealth of economic resources, and grew up in Puerto Rico in a family of “few means.”
As a Puerto Rican and Latina, Dr. Hernandez said the recognition is especially meaningful.
“It’s...an honor for Latinas, because there are few women cardiologists, and even fewer who are Latina women. So I see myself as representing not just myself but all Latina women,” Dr. Hernandez said of the honor.
If you are interested in learning more about women's heart health and risk factors for heart disease, go to the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women website to learn more, or talk to your physician. And watch the video below to learn a little bit more about Dr. Hernandez and her work: