When Nissi Suppogu was just 8 years old, she lost her mother to a heart-related stroke. At that age, she was already vowing to work in women’s heart health. Over time, she would realize bigger dreams to launch an entire center dedicated to that mission.
On Sept. 1, Suppogu did just that when she opened the doors to the Women’s Heart Center at MemorialCare.
Today, Suppogu still points to the painful experience of losing her mother as her inspiration. After her mother died where they lived in Hyderabad, South India, Suppogu was forced to mature quickly, she said.
“I missed her growing up so much,” Suppogu said.
Suppogu would later learn that her mother’s condition, rheumatic heart disease, had been treatable, but she had been afraid to go see the doctor.
“She could have been around for another 20, 30 years or so for her family,” said Suppogu.
It seemed like no one had taken the time to convince her mother to seek care or include her father and the family in the conversation to understand her options and their importance. Her mother had also been shy about seeing her male doctor. If she’d had a female doctor, perhaps it could have made a difference, Suppogu said.
“That had a profound effect on my pursuing my dream,” Suppogu said. “I wanted to grow up to be that person that could reach out to women and help them come be comfortable, get checked.”
After completing medical school in Mauritius, Suppogu moved from India, her home country, to the United States for her medical residency, where she immediately noticed a dire need for women’s care.
Time and time again, the same patients would come in for chest pains, she said. Their tests would come up normal, and they’d be sent on their way, only to return later with the same issue.
Suppogu said she felt that something wasn’t adding up.
After she began a fellowship program at Cedars-Sinai, Suppogu finally was able to receive specialized training in women’s heart health. During that time she also had the opportunity to interact with more leaders in the field who shared the desire to influence change and improve outcomes for women, she said.
“That’s what inspired me,” she said. “I’m like, OK, I’m a physician, I dedicated my life to the wellbeing of my patients—but what can I do to change something?”
Suppogu knew she was ready to take on the challenge, she said.
After Suppogu completed her fellowship, she had a number of job offers to choose from, many of which came from big-name hospitals. But Suppogu knew she wanted to focus her efforts in a place where there was an obvious need and where a women’s heart program would really make a difference, she said.
While at Cedars-Sinai, Suppogu witnessed how far patients drove or even flew to get tested—the same was true at UC Irvine, where another women’s heart center is located.
Suppogu recalled her experience with MemorialCare, where she had worked while participating in a cardiology fellowship at UC Irvine.
“They knew that I always wanted to do something like this,” she said.
By having testing available within Long Beach Medical Center, patients no longer need to be referred to Los Angeles or Orange County. It will help serve a large, diverse population, Suppogu said. Now that the center is open, she’s confident that it will be a busy one.
“There’s so many patients out there that we can identify now, and give them a good quality of life for tomorrow,” Suppogu said.
Soon, she hopes to set up a free clinic at the hospital once or twice a month, to better care for patients that may not have access to health care.
“It’s really nice to see all the support I’m getting,” Suppogu said of MemorialCare. “I am so, so grateful every time I turn around and ask for something and something gets done.”
Suppogu hopes that the program will grow particularly for women with specific cardiac conditions that cannot be diagnosed with routine tests. Women who have chest pain and have had a heart attack but no obstructive coronary artery disease (blocked arteries), women who are pregnant with chest pain, and women who are in the early stages of menopause who are experiencing symptoms are considered at-risk patients who are the focus at the center, Suppogu said.
Women tend to face different risk factors than men when it comes to cardiovascular disease, such as preterm delivery, pregnancy-related hypertensive disorders and gestational diabetes.
And unlike what men typically experience, women can have heart disease that involves microvascular disease, which affects tiny vessels that deliver blood to heart tissue, rather than blocked arteries.
Women also tend to present various symptoms other than chest pain, like tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or weakness, which can often lead doctors to point to anxiety or stress instead of a heart condition, Suppogu explained.
At the MemorialCare center, patients are able to get tested for conditions that aren’t routinely checked. Today, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in women, Suppogu said, citing the National Institute of Health.
But much is still unknown about treatment and long-term outcomes, Suppogu said.
Ultimately, research is still lacking when it comes to women’s heart health. Some 80 to 90% of people included in most cardiology studies are men, and up until 10 years ago, the National Institute of Health was only using male rats in their research, Suppogu said.
But with information collected from patients who are treated at the center, and the more information that is shared with the public, Suppogu hopes that in the near future, all women will know to get their heart checked annually.
Societally and culturally, it can also be more difficult for women to advocate for themselves, and Suppogu hopes that with more awareness, women will learn to recognize the symptoms and seek help, rather than deprioritizing their health due to work and family commitments, she said.
Down the line, every cardiologist should be aware of these differences, and it shouldn’t require needing a female doctor to recognize certain symptoms among female patients, said Suppogu.
“It’ll be like, every cardiologist is aware of it,” she said. “And they’re not just talking about it, but they’re really acting on it.”
The Women’s Heart Center is located at 3828 Schaufele Drive, Suite 200. The clinic and most non-invasive testing will be done at MemorialCare Medical Group, Suite 200. Invasive testing will be done at Long Beach Medical Center. Patients can get more information or make an appointment by calling (657) 241-9051.