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WTAE's Wiggin puts herself in spotlight to bring awareness to women's coronary problems

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bring on the big 5-0. WTAE anchor Sally Wiggin can't wait to cross that threshold in September. "You know what 50 means to me? ... Fifty means to me one more year of life. And I'm not being dramatic." Her father, after all, died of a heart attack at age 51 when Wiggin was a teen-ager.

WTAE anchor Sally Wiggin talks with Dr. William Follansbee after he has listened to her heart and carotid arteries in an exam room at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, Oakland. WTAE's Kathy Driscoll tapes the session as part of a report airing tonight in which Wiggin talks about her heart problems and those of women in general. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette photos)

Her maternal grandfather, a heavy smoker, had a fatal heart attack at 43. Her mother had a heart attack at 67 and underwent two open-heart surgeries before her death at 77. When Wiggin's younger sister was 35, she was diagnosed with a problem with the electrical rhythm of her heart, since corrected.

Now, Wiggin is coping with her own heart disease. It doesn't threaten her job as 6 and 11 p.m. co-anchor but has required medication and changes in diet, sleep, exercise, once jam-packed schedule, outlook and sense of privacy.

No more days that regularly stretch from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. No more automatically saying yes to every invitation and cause, no matter how dear, that come her way. No more caffeine for a woman who, until five years ago, drank 10 to 14 cups of coffee a day. No more full-out exercise without worrying her heart rate will go too high.

And no more keeping her health history from the viewers.

In a report about women and heart disease on today's 11 p.m. newscast, Wiggin will serve as both reporter and patient. In addition to focusing on a new initiative called Working Hearts, Wiggin will interview physicians and female cardiac patients at Allegheny General Hospital and UPMC.

UPMC had suggested she talk with Dr. William Follansbee, a cardiologist who happens to be her physician. "I'm supposed to simplify my life, and simplifying my life means we have less shooting time if I'm the patient, so I'm going to be his patient."

More on the story

Jewish Healthcare Foundation initiative aims to make women smarter about their hearts

Blood tests can provide early alert to heart disease

Aspirin for women raises some questions

Advice on women, heart disease and prevention

For more information about Working Hearts, you can call the Jewish Healthcare Foundation at 412-594-2583. Working Hearts has a Web site www.workinghearts.org, and you can also e-mail questions or requests for information to workinghearts@jhf.org.


Wiggin has coronary artery disease, with one of the three major arteries 50 percent to 60 percent blocked; "left bundle branch block," a problem with the electrical system of her heart; and evidence of small-vessel disease, which means the little branches at the bottom of the blocked artery aren't working as they should. Tests also have shown a slight weakening of the heart muscle.

She has not undergone any surgery, and her problems are being managed with drugs. "God has given me a warning sign. That's why I'm doing this."

Credit Working Hearts with giving her the push. "I wasn't going to go really public with this, until they got me involved and I was inspired, and I said, oh, maybe I can help. Becoming involved with this program and doing interviews has made me feel empowered. I am embarrassed, but it was worth it, because now I actually feel like I have a great deal more hope than when I started."

Tonight, Wiggin will trade her anchor armor for a gown, so the specialist can listen to her heart. "You look so vulnerable. But I am vulnerable," although feeling more in control these days.

"What I learned is, yes, 50 percent of all first heart attacks end in death. But a lot of people don't know they have the disease. I'm way ahead of the game. I'm being treated, I know my risk factors and how to lessen them. Knowledge is power. That's what women really need -- to get past not wanting to bother someone and ask questions."

She recently developed some irregular heartbeats -- "the first week, I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest .... Any little thing that happens now, I'm like, ooh, is it changing, progressing? I think you do that the first year....

"It's like the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I don't know what's going to happen. I have been told that the outlook for me is good," she says.

"But I play a role in this. And stopping at a BP gas station and getting a gob [cookie], I still do that once in a while. I mean, it has to stop, it just has to stop. But it's really kind of hard at this age. You start gaining weight if you don't also exercise. And I can't up my exercise like I used to," since she's trying to keep her heart rate at 130 a minute or below. She does yoga and Pilates daily and tries to walk five times a week.

The woman who said in her 1986 Dossier that her favorite foods were "the peanut butter cookies in the vending machine at our station" has found nutrition -- and the health-food and organic sections of the Giant Eagle. She's eating vegetables, beans, soy, egg whites and, once or twice a week, fish. She's searching, sometimes in vain, for low-fat entrees on menus.

Encouraging women to eat healthier is one of her missions as a spokeswoman for Working Hearts, an initiative of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation of Pittsburgh.

"I'm doing this to try to help women out there realize it is a possibility, it could happen to me, but there's so much you can do," says Sally Wiggin, who is having her carotid artery examined.

"During the month of February, I'll be going around to a lot of these different groups and talking about what you can do -- like 'Take 10.' You can exercise 10 minutes, and that does have heart-healthy benefits. You can cut out certain types of meats or fat," and realize you may be leading a dangerously sedentary and stressful life.

Wiggin never had chest pain and initially attributed some of her symptoms -- fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations -- to perimenopause and her peripatetic schedule. "I made lots of appearances. I had a godchild I tried to see a lot. I had a lot of friends, some elderly, that I like to see a lot. I had horses, dogs. I wanted to spend time reading to children," and a boyfriend entered the picture, too.

Wiggin never smoked, never carried excess weight on her 5-foot-8-inch frame and didn't suffer from high blood pressure. She had been aware of her genetic predisposition but wasn't always vigilant.

"Everybody at work would laugh at me. I'd go two weeks and I'd eat this healthy diet and then I'd go out and cram about five doughnuts in my face. And I had been an athlete for years. I had been a competitive swimmer, and I would exercise off and on." Her cholesterol hovered around 165 to 185, although with the drug Lipitor, it's now around 155.

After many tests, Wiggin's cluster of conditions slowly came into focus in the past 3 1/2 years. A definitive diagnosis came in July, and Wiggin acknowledges she's not the "garden-variety heart patient."

The TV anchor knows people mistakenly think breast cancer kills more women than heart disease. "It's been very frustrating having people take heart disease in this country seriously," and anyone with severe congestive heart failure or cardiomyopathy knows it is very serious, indeed.

"Here we are, we've increased our life spans dramatically, but it's all going to be for naught if we continue to eat like we do and to live these sedentary lives." She encourages younger women with a family history of heart disease to take action now.

"I have great hope I can hang on long enough that in five to 10 years, there will be new procedures and new medications that will ensure I can live a long and healthy life and maybe even start exercising harder."

Wiggin isn't the first TV personality to go public with a health problem. WPXI anchor Peggy Finnegan talked about breast cancer, KDKA's Don Cannon has discussed struggles with alcohol and depression, and WTAE meteorologist Joe DeNardo was open about lung cancer.

"Do I worry that people will treat me differently?" Wiggin says. At first yes, but she assumes they'll forget.

"I'm doing this to try to help women out there realize it is a possibility, it could happen to me, but there's so much you can do. Damn it, if I had really known this was going to happen, I would have been doing the Dean Ornish dance 10 years ago, and it might never have happened. And it might have happened anyway, because of my genetic history. But wouldn't it have been better if I had really prepared for it?"

WTAE news director Bob Longo says he was taken aback when Wiggin first presented him with news of her medical condition. He says it was Wiggin who suggested revealing her condition in a report. Although cynics might point out the story's placement, during February sweeps, the timing was driven by the launch of Working Hearts.

"I've gone out of my way not to ask or nudge or any of that," Longo says. "I don't want to be looked at as a news director vulture who takes advantage of people's ills and issues and making them a poster child for something."

Longo says internal discussion of how to handle the story evolved.

"It was tossed about how we should handle it, how big a deal was it, whether Sally should do the story and not even mention herself in the story," Longo says. "We talked about doing the story only on Sally. We came out with a nice mix of the issue, presented by Sally, who it also affects. It makes it more interesting."

Longo says Wiggin's condition hasn't altered her work schedule. Had the Steelers gone to the Super Bowl, Wiggin would have been in New Orleans for "a string of very long, hard days. She was up for it and was prepared to do it.

"That's kind of one of the points of the story," Longo says. "It doesn't mean your life is over and you can't keep doing what you're doing within reason with the right medical treatment. It's a good news story in that regard."

Wiggin knows she may be repeating some of what WTAE medical editor Marilyn Brooks preaches. "Everybody thinks it's going to happen to somebody else. I did. I really thought I had a bulletproof vest on, and I'd either dodge the bullet or -- if it hit me -- it was just going to nick me a little bit."

Every now and then, the 49-year-old anchor finds herself pounding her fist on the table and wishing she had her old life back. But then she realizes something.

"Honestly, this is a better life that I have now. This is a better way to live."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen contributed to this report.

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