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Change of Heart

Celebrating heart health with Gretchen Wells

BY CLAIRE RAMSAY

Gretchen Wells originally went to medical school to be a pediatrician, but during her last year of medical school she had a change of heart. The only rotation open was in the cardiology department, and it was love at first sight.

gretchen wells: woman in a pink top with a white labcoat smiling at the camera
Photo by Megan McCardwell/ HJ

She was able to learn under some of the best in her field, “I trained under some true giants in the field — the late Dr. William C. Little, Dr. Bob Applegate and many others who were not only outstanding physicians but truly some of the finest humans that I have ever encountered.”

Her piece of advice for anyone interested in going into cardiology, “The only time you fail is when you give up. Never, ever give up!”

Wells (MD, PhD, FACC) is a Cardiologist and Director of Women’s Heart program in Lexington.

Asked why she chose to go into Women’s Heart Health, she says “it chose me.” At her former institution she was the only female cardiologist, and female patients gravitated to her, though she did (and still does) treat male patients as well.

At the time, there were a few published clinical trials that impacted the way cardiologists thought about heart disease in women. For example, “In a WISE study, it was shown that women with chest pain and abnormal stress tests often had no significant blockages on the heart catheterization.”

Much has since been learned since about women and cardiovascular health, but there’s still a long way to go.

cover: woman in a pink top with a white labcoat smiling at the cameraWhitney Stevenson credits Wells with saving her life. Stevenson — only in her 30s — was experiencing chest pains, but doctors hadn’t yet found a cardiovascular reason. She finally made her way to Wells and during an episode of chest pain, Wells ordered another heart catheterization and a check of her smaller vessels. Her test came back positive for micro- vascular disease. It was a huge relief to finally know what was wrong. Stevenson says, “Spending time with family and friends has become that much more special as I reflect on what might have happened if Dr. Wells hadn’t taken the time to listen to me.”

Cardiology Director and colleague Dr. Susan Smyth says, “No one in Kentucky can match Gretchen’s expertise in heart care for women. But more importantly, she advocates for her patients and women across the state to improve their heart health. We are lucky to have her.”

February is Heart Month and allows organizations like the American Heart Association to bring awareness to the people about being heart healthy, and it’s something Wells naturally feels passion- ate about.

“Once you stop smoking, in a few years, you reduce your risk to that of a lifetime nonsmoker. Plus, you’ll feel better.”

“Most of the things that we can do to improve heart health in Kentucky,” she explains, “are ‘low tech.” Other than reducing the use of tobacco, people need to move more, and of course, eat better. She mentioned The American Heart Asso- ciation’s “Life’s Simple 7” and says that if most of the citizens of Kentucky can meet just 5 of the 7, there could be nearly an 80% reduction in cardiovascular deaths.

Heart Mind Body Connection
Dr. Wells is currently focusing on her research on psychologic attributes and cardiovascular disease. Her research is inspired by an Episcopal priest she knew, Dr. John Rowan Claypool, who was intrigued by the fact that two people who have the exact same circumstances in life can have vastly different outcomes. She has been working on this for the past decade and wants to “understand the role of optimism and gratitude in cardiac outcomes.” She’s learned that simple exercises that are geared to improve the psychologic attributes can have a powerful impact on a patient’s cardiac outcome.

Wells feels there are no success stories that ride on one person. She believes in is the importance of collaboration. She still remembers well the first patient she had as an intern. She was interning on the oncology service and he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma. He would call her on a frequent basis throughout her training and she would visit him in the Oncology clinic. “By the last time that he called me,” she remem- bers, “I’d been an attending physician for several years.” Eventually, he called her at her home one night to give her the good news that he wouldn’t be running into her as a patient anymore. After being treated for more than a decade, he was considered to be cured. She said he was right. She has not seen him since, but they do still communicate from time to time.

That’s a success story, shared by many.

Asked the best part of her job — re- search? Patient care? — she has a quick answer. “Best part of my job — I love it all.”

 

“Cardiovascular disease, listed as the underlying cause of death, accounts for nearly 836,546 deaths in the US. That’s about 1 of every 3 deaths in the US. About 2,300 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, an av- erage of 1 death every 38 seconds. Cardiovascular diseas- es claims more lives each year than all forms of cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease combined. About 92.1 million American adults are living with some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of stroke.”

—American Heart Association’s “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2018 At-a-Glance.”

 


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