Gerry Langan has heart failure. To monitor her heart and blood vessels, sometimes doctors will surgically insert a cardiac catheter into her chest. Langan, who is a 34-year-old Asian American mom of twin toddlers, usually lives an active life despite her condition—until a catheter procedure nearly caused her to go into septic shock six years ago.1
It started when Langan noticed pus emerging from the area where her catheter had previously been inserted. She rushed to a nearby hospital to get it checked out—where six doctors brushed off the fever and chills she was also experiencing. As her symptoms got more severe, Langan was told that all that she needed was a simple antibiotic, even though she reminded them of her condition and voiced how much pain she was in. Infections from cardiac catheters can be deadly, and while an oral antibiotic can be used to treat mild cases, Langan’s infection was particularly intense.1
Over the next few hours, her fever and chills continued to worsen. Eventually, another doctor (who hadn’t been treating Langan up until that point, but just happened to see what was going on) noticed that she was going into septic shock—signified by a super-high fever, shallow breathing, and disorientation—and called an ambulance to take her to another hospital that could treat her for it.
As frustrating as it is, Langan’s experience with having pain dismissed can be a common ordeal among certain groups of people. Women tend to have worse outcomes than men do overall when they see cardiologists (e.g., their pain intensifies, or their condition deteriorates) and are more likely than men to die after receiving cardiological treatment.2 Women of color, particularly Black women, fare even worse: While heart disease is the leading cause of death among women of all races in the US, Black women are 2.4 times more likely to develop it than white women “and are more likely to die younger compared to white women,”3 Estelle Jean, MD, a cardiologist, tells SELF. The reasons for this are complex, but institutional sexism and racism—and a lack of access to affordable care—can play a major role.3,4,5
Langan didn’t necessarily have a choice about who she saw at the ER that day (and you might not either in some situations), but her story helps illustrate the fact that doctors are humans too—and some might handle your treatment with certain gender or racial biases (or other limitations), which Langan felt played a role in her case. She now sees a cardiologist she really vibes with and is empathetic to her experience, though she met with a few doctors who weren’t the right fit—and showed some warning signs they weren’t in a position to treat her condition thoroughly—before getting to that point. If you’re looking for a new cardiologist—or are starting to cool on your current one—here are three red flags to watch out for.
They aren’t connecting the dots—or are getting lazy in the discovery process.
Chest pain and shortness of breath can be common signs of a heart attack and heart failure in both men and women, but women may also experience different symptoms, like nausea and fatigue, which doctors can sometimes overlook.6 (Doctors are trained in spotting these differences, but only an estimated 22% of cardiologists fully implement them when treating women.) “A woman may complain about fatigue and is told to just exercise,” Sharayne Mark, MD, FACC, tells SELF, which could be (potentially) deadly advice if that fatigue stems from an artery blockage.