Heart of the Matter

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Joanna Pucel '74

When Joanna Pucel ’74 advises her St. Cloud State University speech students that personal stories add credibility to their communication, she’s preaching what she practices. In her award-winning outreach efforts to combat America’s number one killer – heart disease – she reveals her own dramatic struggle with what too often is thought of as “a man’s disease.”

Last spring, when Pucel went to Washington with 14 Minnesotans for American Heart Association Congressional Lobby Day, she told her story, then asked for support for the Heart for Women Act, legislation aimed at increasing funding for research – especially on women’s heart disease.

Kathleen Mahon, a certified nurse practitioner and Women@Heart project coordinator at St. Cloud’s Central Minnesota Heart Center, was on that trip to the nation’s capitol. “When we met with our state’s representatives, Joanna talked about her own experience with heart disease, how it’s impacted her life,” Mahon said. “She was very important in conveying why there needs to be more funding for women and heart disease.”

The associate professor’s story is indeed compelling. By 1984 Pucel, who earned her SCSU degree in speech communication and is now teaching communication studies, had been showing signs of cardiac problems for five years, including arm tingling and shortness of breath. While she told her doctors of her symptoms, it wasn’t until she showed up sweating and having trouble breathing that doctors conducted a stress test – something Pucel said “just wasn’t done on women – especially young women.”

“Everything just stopped in that room, and the cardiologist said, ‘You’re a walking time bomb,’” Pucel said. “I would have been dead in a week.” Pucel was just 37. While at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis for triple bypass surgery, doctors realized that she’d probably had her first silent heart attack at 25.

Those stunning events prompted Pucel to take a hard look at her family health history and her lifestyle – and began her quest to help boost resources and awareness for cardiac care, especially for women.

Her family history was a big piece in this new life puzzle. Pucel’s mother died at age 42, when Joanna was just two, and most of her aunts and uncles on her mother’s side of the family passed away in their late 30s and early 40s. However,it wasn’t until she confronted her own life-threatening situation that she understood the stark implications of those personal losses.

Pucel also discovered that the extent of ignorance about women’s risk of heart disease is huge. In reality it’s the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.

She is religious about diet and stress-reducing exercise to augment the strong regimen of pharmaceuticals that fight to keep her cholesterol at a reasonable level. She credits tennis with saving her life and gardening with helping to diminish the stress that’s a major contributor to her continuing struggle to stay healthy. Prevention magazine featured her with other health advocates in a 2001 article, “Win the Cholesterol War!” The section on Pucel talked about the effective strategy that helped her lower her cholesterol from 295 to 209.

Pucel also is a fervent volunteer for organizations and efforts to enhance cardiac care and awareness. One is the “Go Red Campaign” to gain recognition and funding for research on heart disease and women, which she has carried to the SCSU campus to increase awareness for faculty members, staff and students.

She also recognizes the dire need for understanding and supporting patients coping with heart disease. She initiated the St. Cloud chapter of Mended Hearts cardiac support group in 1985 and became its first president.

Her outreach has earned her a Minnesota Association of Cardiovascular & Pulmonary Rehabilitation “Person of the Year” award and she is in the American Heart Association speakers bureau.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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