Jean McSweeney, PhD, RN, FAHA, FAAN, has always been interested in the human heart. She worked for many years as a critical care nurse, where she routinely provided care to cardiac patients in the ICU. So when she was exploring a dissertation topic, it was only natural for her to look to heart attack victims.
“I soon realized that we didn’t know enough about women and cardiovascular disease,” says McSweeney, an Arkansas Nurses Association member. “Many women were excluded from cardiovascular studies because their fluctuating hormone levels created a cumbersome variable.”
Then for her first post-dissertation research in 1993, she decided to focus on women – specifically what they believed caused their heart attacks and the potentially risky behaviors they were willing to change. Through that study, she learned that some women attributed their myocardial infarctions (MIs) to smoking, being overweight, or a lifestyle that was either too stressful or too sedentary. One of her key findings was that women were willing to change whatever they viewed as the primary cause of their heart attack, such as quit smoking. However, women also reported experiencing different symptoms surrounding their MIs. At the time, researchers and clinicians assumed that the symptoms that men exhibited prior to a MI would be the same for women.
McSweeney was able to pursue that initial research with an ANF grant, which she applied for at the urging of her mentor. Now, she encourages others to look toward ANF to kick start their nursing research careers.
“Getting that grant led to the whole trajectory of my career,” says McSweeney, a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Ark.
McSweeney now is a leader in clinical research on women and coronary heart disease (CHD) and MI symptoms. Because of her work, women no longer are looked at as carbon copies of men when addressing cardiac risks and heart attack symptoms, such as crushing chest pain. Her body of work includes developing and testing an assessment tool to identify women at risk for CHD, examining black, Hispanic, and white women’s symptoms of CHD, and pinpointing women’s early warning symptoms of acute MIs.
Over the years her work has gained both national and international attention. She’s been asked to speak at major conferences of nursing and physician groups, and her research has led to changes in practice. For example, board-certified emergency physicians are now expected to know the gender differences in MI symptoms when evaluating women.
And her work has been featured in mainstream media, including the “CBS Evening News” and Good Housekeeping. CNN interviewed McSweeney about her groundbreaking 2003 study that identified unusual fatigue and sleeplessness as early warning indicators of heart attack in women.
Currently, McSweeney is involved in a five-year study funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research to predict CHD events in black and white women and hopes to develop a rapid screening tool.
“If we pick up early CHD symptoms and a positive CHD risk score, women could be immediately referred, evaluated and treated, possibly preventing progression to MI,” she says. McSweeney says she owes a “debt of gratitude” to ANF for believing in her and funding her research. “I like the idea of nurses helping nurses. If everybody gave $10 to support nursing research, they could help nurses in so many ways – from research to clinical application.”