Identical twins Patricia Wood and Pamela Smith aren’t surprised when they are mistaken for each other. While growing up looking and sounding exactly alike, confusion here and there was a common occurrence.
What isn’t quite so common is that the two – now age 64 — had identical heart events, ironically a year apart. While sharing their family history and their recent journey that lands them in what they’ve called “a different category,” the twins are also determined to raise awareness about the role genetics plays in heart disease.
Beyond grateful to have each other for support since a very early age, Pam and Pat share a bit about their history, which includes their father’s death from a heart attack when the twins were only three years old.
“While we have a family history of heart disease, it was predominantly on the male side of the family, including our father (who died at age 47) and two of our three brothers (one died at age 54, the other had emergency quadruple bypass surgery at age 45 and fought heart disease for 30-plus years before dying at age 77),” says Pat. “On the maternal side of our family there was a history of high blood pressure – which I reluctantly started medication for the year before my heart attack. Eventually, our maternal grandmother and our mother died of heart disease, but they were both mid-80’s. So I certainly felt heart disease was 20-plus years away.”
Even though the sisters had worked hard to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle all through the years, sometimes the path of genetics is difficult to pause.
For Pat, her heart attack arrived with no forewarning. “It woke me up on a Saturday morning, and I had no idea what was happening,” she recalls. While she felt what she calls extreme discomfort, and couldn’t stand on her own, a heart attack was not on her mind. Once at the hospital, a blood test confirmed the diagnosis, and she was transferred to a nearby hospital with a cardiac catheterization lab, where doctors found a 100% blockage in one of her coronary arteries.
In slightly different fashion, Pam did have warning signs before her heart attack that included what she describes as a “flutter” moving up the left side of her neck, sudden sweating, and discomfort in her left arm. Since she had been cleared by a cardiologist (and a stress test) just after Pat’s incident the year before, again, the incident was unexpected. But the next morning her primary care physician sent her straight to the hospital, where the same blood test revealed a heart attack was taking place. Identical to her sister, Pam was transferred to a cardiac catheterization lab, and also had a stent placed in the major artery – which in Pam’s case showed a 90% blockage. For both sisters, other arteries were perfectly clear.
Following their incidents, each sister participated in cardiac rehab, a 12-week program highly recommended by cardiologists following any heart-related incident. Participants wear heart monitors, and blood pressure, weight, and pulse oxygen level are logged before each session. Warm-up, cardio activities, and cool-down are always included, along with nutrition counseling. Because Pat had been attending rehab at the same facility, the staff felt they were already familiar with Pam when she arrived!
“For me, it was emotionally hard to participate in the program, because it brought me to tears,” says Pat. “It brought me to the realization of what I had survived.”
Pat and Pam continue to share their experience with each other – and women all over – and find time spent together even more precious. Avid shoppers, which they both find stress relieving, they often meet via FaceTime to share new purchases and catch up – clearly a highlight of the day for both, and no doubt a form of twin healing.
Thankfully, both sisters are passionate about sharing the truth they know: Heart disease kills one in three women.
“While Pam and I ‘appear’ to be healthy now, the genetic factor is there. We urge women to listen to their bodies,” says Pat. Both she and Pam are Go Red for Women designees by the local American Heart Association, as well as members of the 2023 Executive Leadership Committee. They offer their time to the Triad Heart Association’s events to raise awareness, and financial support to further the goals of the American Heart Association. Look for buildings around Winston-Salem to be illuminated with red light on February 3, 2023, to celebrate GO RED FOR WOMEN!