Heart disease survivor hopes to educate others

Melissa Frykman-Thieme frequently walks in the woods. - Susan Riemer/Staff Photo
Melissa Frykman-Thieme frequently walks in the woods.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/Staff Photo

Melissa Frykman-Thieme woke up one April morning three years ago with discomfort in her chest and suspected she was coming down with bronchitis. She was slightly dizzy when she stood up and thought it best to take the day off and rest. When her husband Doug came home that evening, she tried to call out to greet him but was overcome with chest pain so sudden and intense she could not say a word. Doug walked through the house and found her in the bedroom.

“I managed to croak out, ‘Call 911,’” she recalled.

The medics arrived in minutes, evaluated her and, suspecting a digestive ailment, transported her to Swedish Hospital. After various tests in the emergency room, including an EKG and blood work, the physicians tending to her pronounced her fine, except for what they suspected was a bad case of heartburn. At 10 p.m. the doctors were set to discharge her and suggested she buy an antacid on the way home. By this time, though, her pain had moved up in to her jaw and down her left arm. She and her husband, both registered nurses, felt the problem was far more serious and insisted on another blood test.

When the results came back, they showed what Melissa had known since the sudden pain in the bedroom: She was having a heart attack.

Thus began what has become for Frykman-Thieme a three-year odyssey that included the placement of five stents in her coronary arteries, a triple bypass open heart surgery, dozens of ambulance trips to Seattle, multiple hospital stays, hundreds of doctors appointments, countless medications and ongoing problems with chest pain, or angina.

It also led her to become a community ambassador for the issue of women and heart disease.

Many Islanders know Frykman-Thieme (pronounced frickman-theme)for her nursing work on Vashon. She has worked in doctors offices, the adult-day health program and Vashon Community Care. With her calm presence and gentle demeanor, she has also tended to many Islanders in their homes through Visiting Nurse Services of the Northwest and most recently with Providence Hospice of Seattle.

Drawing from her nursing background and her experience with her own heart disease, last October she attended the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with 54 other women, all heart disease survivors. As a graduate or “champion” of the seminar, Frkyman-Thieme now has a mission to educate, advocate and support women who have heart disease or are concerned about developing it.

“My deepest hope is that my work as a WomenHeart champion on the Island will bring needed information and connection, and perhaps even save lives,” she said.

For Frykman-Thieme, the issue is a personal one, and her own story illustrates a common problem with cardiovascular disease, she said: It is often misdiagnosed and mistreated in women. Women’s symptoms tend to be different than men’s, she said, and for a long time cardiovascular disease was considered to be primarily a man’s disease, and research and physician education were conducted accordingly.

But in truth, Frykman-Thieme said, heart disease is the number one killer of women.

“One out of four women has or will develop heart disease. Five times more women die of heart disease than breast cancer,” she said.

Heart disease is not just a disease of the elderly, Frykman-Thieme noted. She was 50 when she had her heart attack; the youngest woman in her class was 33.

The good news, she said, is there are steps women can take to be as heart healthy as possible.

First, they should know their history. Genetics play an important role and cannot be changed, but many controllable factors also play a part. Women who smoke should stop. Eating right is invaluable, and diets should include lean protein, healthy fats and an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Women should get their cholesterol checked and take medication if the doctor prescribes it.

“Know your numbers,” she said. “Every moment you have high cholesterol is a risky moment.”

Exercise is also important. Frykman-Thieme now incorporates a walk in the woods into her daily life, as well as tai chi, which her cardiologist recommended to help cope with the stress of having heart disease and enduring multiple medical interventions.

In fact, studies show it is imperative that women — healthy or living with cardiovascular disease — deal with stress.

“Stress and anxiety. …They absolutely create heart disease,” she said.

Illness, of course, creates its own stress, as Frykman-Thieme knows well. She developed post-traumatic stress disorder after a medical procedure went wrong, and she nearly died. Other difficult medical situations contributed to it, and now she now contends with depression and anxiety — common, she said, for heart disease survivors, but frequently kept quiet.

Still, she is ready to move forward.

In the coming months, Frykman-Thieme hopes to volunteer in the schools with kids to help them understand about heart health and how what they do now affects them later in life.

“What we eat in our preteen years influences whether or not we get heart disease,” she said. “The blueprint is laid down in these years.”

She wants to start a group for women with heart disease and those concerned about it. She also hopes to lend her support to families and friends of people with heart disease. The disease changes a person’s life, she noted; sometimes it is difficult to know how to pick up and move on.

Her own family has experienced a great deal of difficulty because of her illness. Her husband quit his job to help care for her when she began to experience repeated difficulties after her heart attack. Like his wife, Doug was a nurse with Providence Hospice, and he expected she would get well and he could easily get a new job. In fact, her health struggles continued, and it took him a long time to find new work. Their annual income went from more than $100,000 a year to $15,000. Facing drastically reduced income and mountains of medical bills, they experienced what she calls “medical poverty” and have filed for bankruptcy. Their son Felix withdrew from college in Bellingham to help care for her. He will return when he is considered financially independent and eligible for more aid.

After the difficulty of recent years, Frkyman-Thieme is looking forward to being a resource for people in the community, many of whom she credits with helping save her life. Friends set up a bank account — which she and her husband called “The Miracle Account” — and several anonymous donations kept them afloat in the worst of times.

Now, she said, “It feels good to be able to give back.”

Before her heart attack, Frykman-Thieme worked as a nurse for 35 years, 30 of those with the people at the end of their lives, but she said she never fully considered that she, herself, was mortal. She does now.

“Some days that is overwhelming, horrifying, terrifying,” she said. “On good days, it’s an opportunity to rebuild my life, appreciate what I have and do things differently.”

Melissa Frykman-Thieme is available to do a variety of presentations to individuals and groups in the community. Call her at 463-9561 or e-mail her at fryk See also

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