Dr. Bernadine P. Healy, women’s health advocate and first woman to head NIH, dies

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an extended obituary of Dr. Bernadine P. Healy, the first woman to helm the National Institutes of Health. Healy died of brain cancer last week, at the age of 67.

Among her most notable achievements, the obit noted, one was often overlooked, and that was her role in redefining how Americans think about heart disease. The Times described Healy’s “relentless attack” on the idea that heart attacks were solely “men’s problems”:

Heart disease was by far the leading killer of American women, who accounted for nearly 40 percent of its victims. Women’s groups had long sought a greater focus on women’s coronary health, cancers and the role of hormonal changes and therapy.

Dr. Healy, who had pushed similar concerns within cardiology, went to Washington and made the issue her own.

“The problem is to convince both the lay and medical sectors that coronary heart disease is also a women’s disease, not a man’s disease in disguise,” Dr. Healy wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1991.

This issue hits close to home for me. Almost a decade ago, when she was only 51, my mother had a heart attack. When she arrived at the hospital complaining of tightness in her chest, no one’s first thought was “heart attack,” but “panic attack.” Luckily, she was treated for a heart attack, and she was treated within what they call the Golden Hour. She made a full recovery, and today she’s in fighting shape, serving as a Heart Health Ambassador for the Australian Heart Foundation and getting ready to run the annual fourteen kilometre City to Surf road race in Sydney this weekend (that’s eight miles, for you non-metric folk).

Today, it is recognized that heart disease is the number-one killer of women (this is true in the US, Australia and England, and it’s the number-two killer in Canada). We are still more likely to think of heart attacks as something that happen to middle age men – and to associate panic attacks with women – but thanks in part to Dr. Healy’s advocacy, the misperception that heart attacks are “men’s problems” is far less pervasive than it once was.

As the Times notes, Healy was a controversial figure, and she was criticized for the Red Cross’s response to the 9/11 attacks under her leadership. But she was also a fierce advocate for women’s health, and in her position, she had the power to turn that advocacy into institutional change. Which she did:

Dr. Healy cracked the whip on bureaucrats, recruited new talent, expanded the Human Genome Project and reversed policies that, like the medical establishment, had focused largely on men’s health and virtually excluded women from clinical trials. She mandated the inclusion of women in trials wherever appropriate.

She began the Women’s Health Initiative, a $625 million study of the causes, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and cancer in middle-aged and older women. Long after her tenure, the initiative continued yielding important findings. In 2002, it found that prolonged estrogen-progestin hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women increased risks of breast cancer, stroke and heart attacks.

“Dr. Healy’s stubborn insistence that the N.I.H. concern itself with women’s health was not broadly supported at the time,” Anne M. Dranginis, an associate professor of biological sciences at St. John’s University, wrote in a 2002 Op-Ed article in The New York Times. “Had Dr. Healy not championed research on women’s health, how much longer would healthy women have been encouraged to take hormone drugs?”

That recollection from Dranginis really struck me: the idea that the National Institutes for Health should care about women’s health – you know, the health of half the national population – “was not broadly supported at the time.” You know, in 1993. It’s stunning, really.

But Healy wasn’t stunned, she was just stubborn. Stubborn insistence, rooted in research, backed by a position of power. Bernadine Healy combined those things to change women’s lives for the better. Her work is an example of why getting women into those positions of power and influence isn’t just about representation at the top for the sake of fifty-fifty; when we get women to the top, the benefits flow down and improve the lives of other women. My mother was one of those women, but she’s one of many hundreds of thousands. I’m far from the only daughter out there whose mother is still with her in part because of Healy’s “stubborn insistence” and insistence that women’s health matters.

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever visited the NIH campus, but it is absolutely massive. The reason I know it as well as I do is that I spent five months undergoing experimental research for bipolar disorder.

    There’s always going to be an aspect of troublesome bureaucracy present. What began in the ’7os as a few buildings has swollen massively. But it’s evident that lots of tax dollars have gone into its upkeep, as it was the nicest inpatient facility I had ever been admitted. All kinds of research studies go on simultaneously. I observed that there were just as many women as men who had bipolar, but far more men than women who had schizophrenia or schizo-affective (a milder form) disorder.

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