Queen of hearts

PHOTO: Queen of hearts

She defends the hearts of women against heartbreak. Of the physical kind.

Dr Carolyn Lam, 37, is a consultant cardiologist with the National University Heart Centre, Singapore (NUHCS), and she spearheaded Singapore's first dedicated heart health clinic for women.

Run by women for women, the team includes a dietician, occupational therapist, physiotherapist and an advanced practice nurse.

The clinic offers similar services to successful and well-established clinical programmes such as those in Brigham and Women's Hospital Center for Cardiovascular Disease in Boston, Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic in Minnesota and the Vanderbilt Women's Heart Center in Tennessee.

Explaining the need for the clinic, Dr Lam told The New Paper on Sunday that cardiovascular disease killed one in three women in Singapore in 2008 - making it the No.1 killer of women here.

Yet women are generally unaware of this. Worse, they dismiss it entirely.

"Male patients come to me saying, 'Doc, I have chest pain. Fix it. Give me the pill or do the plumbing you need to do, and I'll be okay."

Women, in contrast, are diffident.

Used to devoting their time and energy to caring for their families, they are not as adept at taking care of themselves, said Dr Lam, who is also Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of Internal Medicine.

They also tend to attribute heart-related symptoms to their own lifestyle, and are more reluctant to seek treatment promptly.

"Women begin with an apology!"

"They say, 'I'm so sorry to bother you, doctor. It must be my own fault, because I'm unfit or overweight," she adds.

Treating heart problems in women can also be more tricky than treating them in men. Symptoms in women tend to present themselves later and do not seem to point as directly to heart disease.

"While men may experience chest pains, warning signs for women come in the form of jaw ache, neck pain, and non-specific breathlessness and tiredness. There are gender differences in how the body reacts to heart problems."

It was this observation that led her to focus on women's heart health.

Today, she is a prominent name in the field and is a regular at international conferences where she presents cutting edge studies and research about heart health.

This reporter had to catch up with her over long-distance calls as she is in Boston for a conference.

But it was also the obvious gender disparity in seeking help for heart problems that galvanised DrLam to start the clinic.

She hopes that it will become a "safe place" that women can come to to air their concerns, without the worry of "sounding silly" - and realise that their concerns may very well be genuine medical emergencies.


What keeps the good doctor going?

She pondered this a moment, and laughed good-naturedly: "I've always wanted to be a doctor. It might have partially been because my mom's also a doctor."

On probing - much like her patients, Dr Lam is reticent when talking about herself - she reveals that she loves medicine for the "equalising" effect it has.

She explained: "I can be seeing the sultan's wife, or the Ah Ma down the street, but it all comes down to one human being relating to another - and that to me is very meaningful."

Still, the lack of awareness about heart matters worries her.

"If we compare awareness of heart disease among women to the breast cancer movement, we realise how little there is about the former.

"Breast cancer campaigns have been so successful that even young girls who are not at risk start getting concerned when they feel some lumpiness or other symptoms.

"I think more awareness would really make a difference," she said.

She also believes that increasing awareness about heart disease among women will have far-reaching effects on wider segments of the population.

"Very often, the woman in the household has the most impact on the food kept in the fridge, the way it's cooked, and what the man eats.

"So once you get to the woman, you can reach the entire family!" she said with a hearty laugh.


This article was first published in The New Paper