In 1980, while studying coronary anatomy in medical school, I learned that a heart attack involving the left anterior descending artery was nicknamed the “widowmaker.” I thought it was a clever term because it underlined the importance of this artery, the occlusion of which carries a high risk of death. But he was wrongly teaching that heart attacks are a man’s disease.
In 2022, I assumed the term was rightly obsolete. But a few months ago I got a call from a friend who said he just got an emergency stent from his “widowmaker”. He remembered hearing those words while he was on the table in the cardiac catheterization lab. He knew he had almost died.
Today his ejection fraction is normal and he has no physical symptoms, but the words still echo in his brain and he is afraid of dying. He is anxious, has nightmares and has trouble concentrating.
Widowmaker: A phrase that seemed so clever when we were students is harmful to our patients.
There is no positive benefit to the patient when we tell him he has had a widowmaker. “Hey, you almost died!” These comments are threatening and turn the patient into a victim who has little control over his or her health.
The term widowmaker also perpetuates the myth that heart disease is a male disease. Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death among women, yet only 56% recognize it as their main health threat. When women come to the emergency room with ST-segment elevation myocardial infarctionthey are less likely than men get reperfusion therapy and they experience more balloon carrier time delays. Women are even less likely than men to receive CPR by assisting.
To change these statistics, we need to increase awareness of female heart disease among women and health care providers. Let’s start by not saying “widow maker”. The words we speak and the way we speak them can heal or harm.
Yes, we want our patients to understand the seriousness of ischemic heart disease so that they can make beneficial changes to their lifestyle. But the language we use should enable rather than paralyze.
Explaining that coronary heart disease is common in both men and women and that lifestyle changes along with interventional and pharmaceutical treatments will help reduce the risk of another event sends a positive message. It’s time to finally put the “widowmaker” to rest.
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About Dr. Vivian Kominos
Vivian Kominos, MD, is an integrative cardiologist with a practice in Oceanport, New Jersey. She is assistant professor of medicine at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and a founding member of the American Board of Integrative Medicine.