Championing Women's Heart Health
By Susan Josephs
Dr. Nieca Goldberg will never forget the day she consulted a male colleague about a female patient with shortness of breath and an abnormal heartbeat. "He said, 'Women just don't get heart disease'—and this was in 1990," she recalls.
Fifteen years later, Goldberg has become one of the country's top advocates for women's cardiac health. As the founder of the Woman's Heart Program at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital and author of the award-winning book Women Are Not Small Men: Life-Saving Strategies for Preventing and Healing Heart Disease in Women
, the 47-year-old cardiologist has dedicated her life to ensuring that women receive the health care they deserve.
"When I was in medical school, you learned that the average patient is a 165-pound male and women were only really discussed in terms of pregnancy and childbirth," she says. "I felt very strongly that the system needed to be fair."
Goldberg, whose face now appears on the back of several million boxes of Chex cereal, credits her success "to being a downright nudge. I can be persistent," she says. "Every time I read something on women and heart disease, I called attention to it. I would talk to anybody who would listen."
Juggling a women's cardiac practice with speaking engagements, teaching, research and volunteering for the American Heart Association means that Goldberg begins her day around 6 a.m. so that she can have breakfast with her radiologist husband. "Having support in your life is key," she says. "My husband and I are both doctors, but we really complement each other."
A lifelong resident of New York City, Goldberg grew up in Brooklyn and attended Barnard College. Interested in literature, she considered becoming a writer. But when her father fell ill with heart disease at the age of 48, "this had a big impact on me to study medicine."
Although she did not have a formal Jewish education, Goldberg feels she absorbed Jewish teachings simply by growing up in a kosher home and observing the holidays. "The Jewish values of giving back to the community and being charitable play a big role in my life," she says.
After Barnard, Goldberg attended SUNY Downstate Medical School, where she also completed a cardiology fellowship and discovered her calling in women's cardiac health. "I think one of the most rewarding things about my work is to see my patients thriving after all these years," she says. "At the end of the day, it's really about the patients."
Goldberg wanted to write her book so she "could empower women to better navigate the healthcare system. So many women had come into my office saying their symptoms had been ignored by other doctors," she says. "I wanted women to know they should never feel intimidated when they visit the doctor."
Believing that "we still have a long way to go" in shifting attitudes toward women's health, Goldberg also wants to address the problems of patient-doctor communication. "I feel we're living in an age where doctors don't have time to talk to their patients. Patients can give you the answers you need if you take the time."
Still, Goldberg feels "very lucky." Not every doctor, after all, has her face on millions of cereal boxes to promote heart health. "One thing I learned from my parents," she says, "is that it's important to always dream big."
Susan Josephs is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.