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Preparing talk on husband's death saves Sandra Unitas' life

After football legend Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack in 2002, his wife was swept up in a whirlwind of interviews and speaking engagements.

Since then, between tending to her family and to Johnny U's legacy, Sandra Unitas has had little time for herself. She was so busy she ignored worsening fatigue and feelings of depression.

But then, this past summer, she was contacted by Sister to Sister, a group focused on preventing heart disease in women. They asked her to talk to a group of Baltimore businesswomen about the disease that killed her husband.

She spoke to the women yesterday at Sports Legends at Camden Yards, a museum outside the ballpark. Preparing for the speech finally got her thinking about her own health, Unitas told them. And that, she said, probably saved her life.

"This whole story is like deja vu," said Unitas.

One wall of the room where she spoke was plastered with photos of her husband in action in his No. 19 Baltimore Colts jersey. As the audience ate breakfast at tables decorated with red, heart-shaped centerpieces, Unitas gave an emotional account of the events leading up to her speech.

It started with a phone call from Allison Buchalter, an organizer for Sister to Sister events in Baltimore. Buchalter told her the group was planning an awareness campaign leading up to health fairs in 16 U.S. cities in February. The fairs would offer diet and exercise guidance and free heart disease screenings.

The breakfast at Sports Legends would kick off this year's Baltimore campaign, Buchalter told her.

"I agreed mainly because of Johnny's heart disease," said Unitas, 62. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized she was not following the advice she was about to dispense.

She had been trying to watch her weight in recent years but had never focused on diet, exercise and regular screening to prevent heart disease.

Like many women, she thought of heart disease as a man's problem. In fact, heart disease is the leading killer of American women. Of the 30,000 women the group has screened since 2001, about 55 percent found out they were at risk for heart disease.

Unitas had been feeling depressed and overly tired for six months or so, but it didn't occur to her to have her heart checked out.

"I was so tired, I'd think I just couldn't keep going," she said. "But honestly I just never thought about my heart."

A few weeks ago, however, she decided it was time to "walk the walk" herself and asked the people at Sister to Sister to help her.

In addition to giving her information on exercise and diet, they put her in touch with Dr. Mandeep Mehra, the head of cardiology at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

On Oct. 17, Unitas visited Mehra for an initial heart screening. He explained that heart disease often manifests itself differently in women and men. While men tend to feel chest pain, women often experience headaches, stomachaches, fatigue or sleeplessness.

Mehra examined Unitas, but found she had none of the classic symptoms of heart problems in men. He was struck, however, by her long-term depression - another warning sign for heart trouble in women.

He directed her to take a treadmill test and undergo X-rays of her heart. On her way to a luncheon two days later, Unitas dropped by the hospital to get the results. She never made it to the lunch.

Mehra found a coronary artery responsible for feeding blood and oxygen to her heart was almost completely blocked by plaque. He estimated that the blockage had reduced her heart function by nearly a third.

"It was extremely dangerous, like a time bomb in her heart," Mehra said. "We don't have a crystal ball, but it could have led to a big heart attack in the near future."

Similar artery blockages were responsible for her late husband's first heart attack in 1993, which led to triple bypass surgery. He died of another heart attack nine years later while exercising on a treadmill at a physical therapy center in Timonium.

Mehra, whose mother had died of a heart attack a few years earlier, didn't want to take chances with Sandy Unitas. He urged her to have surgery immediately.

But she was in denial at first, she told her audience, and was reluctant to upset her children.

"I saw what they went through losing their father, and I didn't want them to go through this again."

She also wished her late husband was there to help her face the difficult decisions she had to make. "I felt so alone," she said.

The urgency of the situation eventually registered, and she called her son, Chad Unitas, to tell him what was happening. On hearing the news, he and other family members rushed to the hospital.

A few hours after walking into Mehra's office, and several weeks after receiving the invitation to speak at the Sister to Sister breakfast, Unitas went into heart surgery.

During the operation, Mehra used a long catheter to insert stents into the blocked portion of the artery. The mesh tubes hold the artery open, returning regular blood flow to her starved heart and greatly reducing the risk posed by the blockage.

Afterward, she spent a couple of days in the hospital recuperating.

Her prognosis is good, Mehra said. "We got it in time, before there was damage to her heart," he said.

At yesterday's breakfast, Unitas urged the women - who applauded loudly at the end of her story - to take care of themselves and to get screened for heart disease.

"Without that screening," she said, "I might not be here to share my story."

chris.emery@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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