Brock Professor will study heart attack warning signs in women

Despite what TV has taught us, it is not always clear when someone is about to have a heart attack. That’s why a Brock University professor is using a nearly $75,000 grant to study the signs and symptoms of a heart attack in men and women with Acute Coronary Syndrome.

The grant, from the Women’s College Research Institute’s Women’s Xchange, will fund research intended to help healthcare professionals and patients become more aware of these signs and symptoms in order to prevent a major cardiac event. Dr. Sheila O’Keefe-McCarthy is a Brock Professor of Nursing.

“I’m a clinician first. I’ve been a registered nurse over the past 25 plus years,” said O’Keefe-McCarthy. “I’ve been in intensive care units both a general medical one and cardiovascular intensive care, and the emergency department. I’ve worked in adult critical care predominantly with cardiovascular patients, so an awful lot of my research inquiry and questions come from clinical practice.”

O’Keefe-McCarthy took an unexpected route to her current position at Brock which she began about a year ago. She began her career as a nurse and through her interest and continued education eventually acquired a PhD in Nursing Science from the University of Toronto. She now teaches several nursing classes at Brock in addition to her research studies.

“With my area of research I would really like to impact the care that’s given to cardiovascular related patients that front line clinicians see, in terms of related health outcomes and pain assessment and management in particular.”

O’Keefe-McCarthy says her program has several distinct areas of research. The first is a pilot study involving an app that will help patients and healthcare workers keep track of signs and symptoms.

“Patients and healthcare providers are informing the actual components of the intervention,” she said. “Patients are telling me that they really want to have control. They come into the emergency department when they’re having some angina or chest pain or a heart attack. They know great medicine is going on but they need some form of control or input.”

Through the app patients will be able to monitor their pain and anxiety by inputting information and seeing a visual read out. Relaxing music or mindfulness activities will help patients relax as they wait for treatment. O’Keefe-McCarthy says she hopes the app, once developed will be able to be used in the future within interventional cardiology and cardiovascular palliative care.

Another area of study for O’Keefe-McCarthy is in taking reactive care and making it more proactive.

“I’ve designed a prodromal symptom screening scale tool which clinicians and patients alike can use.” The scale might not be totally comprehensive right now but in testing O’Keefe-McCarthy hopes it’s usefulness in identifying typical and atypical symptoms in the lead up to a heart attack will improve.

The grant, says O’Keefe-McCarthy, will allow her to be able to give access to healthcare professions and patients to her research.

“We have partnered with Heart Niagara, the Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada and The Canadian Council of Cardiovascular Nurses. [These groups are] knowledge users that have access to people who are affected with actual heart disease and need to have evidence-based materials.”

The professor says she always goes to the experts when beginning her research and includes in that group not only medical professionals but also the patients who have been living with these diseases every day and know “what it is really like.”

“We’re going to talk to them first,” says O’Keefe-McCarthy, “and see how they want to interact with the information, how they want it to be rolled out…We’re going to conduct  focus groups with healthcare professionals and patients. It’s focused on women because there’s an awful lot of discrepancies and disconnect with what women understand and know about heart disease and the warning signs.”

For O’Keefe-McCarthy, this research is not all about work. She lost her mother, sister, and father-in-law to cardiovascular disease.

“They all experienced terrible pain, unusual fatigue and escalating anxiety prior to their cardiac events,” she said. “I am personally and professionally committed to improving the health outcomes of those suffering from heart conditions by finding new and innovative ways to respond to prodromal symptoms and cardiac pain suffered during the first hours of a heart attack.”

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