FEATURE | Posted Feb. 6, 2014

The new face of heart disease

It's not just a concern for older people and men

Crystal Ching and her dogs © UC Regents
Crystal Ching plays with her dogs Hunter and Baxter.

Crystal Ching has no family history of heart disease. She is under 50. Her cholesterol is low. She maintains a healthy weight. Yet she has heart disease.

“Suddenly one day I was overwhelmed by fatigue, upper body pain and nausea,” says the owner of a Sacramento pet products company. “When my husband said I could be having a heart attack, I told him it was impossible because I was too young.”

A physician and friend of Ching’s was not satisfied with her initial diagnosis of “heartburn” at a Sacramento hospital. He provided a prescription for a stress test, which can evaluate the heart’s response to varying levels of exertion. One of her customers passed along the phone number for cardiology at UC Davis Medical Center.

The stress test and an angiogram in UC Davis’ state-of-the-art cardiovascular diagnostic and treatment center revealed three narrowed blood vessels — one was a potentially life-threatening 90 percent occluded. Ching was immediately admitted to the hospital. Amparo Villablanca, a nationally recognized expert on heart disease in women, has been the cardiologist overseeing Ching’s care ever since.

“It is great to be connected with a team who could find the reasons for my symptoms, even though I had no obvious heart disease risk factors,” she says. “I made the right choice to go to UC Davis for my medical care.”

“Crystal says she is the ‘new poster child for heart disease,’” says Villablanca, director of the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program. “She is proof that it is not just a disease of older people or men.”

Today, Ching’s primary diseased vessel has a stent, and she works hard every day to make sure she doesn’t have another cardiac event.

“I’ve made a few lifestyle adjustments,” she said. “I don’t eat meat, I’ve cut way back on the fat in my diet, I go to a gym and I take my medications regularly.”

More information for women on heart disease risks and preventions is available at womenshearthealth.ucdavis.edu.