Cardiologist, Dr. Jean Ekwenibe
Issue no. 2: matters of the heart
words - Attia Taylor
illustration - Singha Hon
Dr. Jean Ekwenibe is a non-invasive cardiologist based in Houston,TX. She strives to provide excellent cardiovascular care and is passionate about educating her patients on how to reduce the risk factors associated with cardiovascular diseases.
Attia Taylor: What got you into health and heart health?
Dr. Ekwenibe: [Cardiology] was never on my radar. When I was young, I thought I would be a pediatrician. Then I went to med school, rotated through pediatrics, and I hated it. I figured it out when I was a resident training in internal medicine. I rotated through the CCU (Coronary Care Unit), and I saw the immediate impact one can have. A person may be saved right then and there.
Taylor: What does a typical heart patient look like when they first come in?
Dr. Ekwenibe: Most people think of an overweight male in their mid-50s to early-60s, but nowadays, because hypertension, obesity, and diabetes are so prevalent, we’re starting to see heart disease in people who are younger and younger.
“nowadays, because hypertension, obesity, and diabetes are so prevalent, we’re starting to see heart disease in people who are younger and younger.”
Taylor: Why do you think that is?
Dr. Ekwenibe: We’re bigger as Americans than we were a generation ago. Because of it, there’s an earlier onset of diabetes and high-blood pressure, especially in African-American communities. I saw a statistic I think it’s like close to 60% of Black women are obese. A staggering number.
Taylor: Let’s say a black woman comes in and is overweight. Does she have problems prior, or is she coming in for a screening?
Dr. Ekwenibe: Not everything is always the heart. We ask a series of questions to figure out her overall risk. One of the most important things is to know your numbers. You should know what your blood pressure is on average, get a baseline set of blood work to understand where your cholesterol sits, know what your BMI is, and whether or not you’re in a healthy range.
Taylor: How does it feel as a black woman working in cardiology, and serving black women knowing that they are more at risk or affected by heart disease and heart issues?
Dr. Ekwenibe: I’m blessed to be able to help. I try not to seem intimidating, so that people can really have a discussion and understand the information I’m giving them. If you feel like you can ask questions, then you’re more inclined to follow the prescribed regimen, instead of going home with a whole bunch of prescriptions and pills and saying, “I don’t want to take this” because you don’t know what it’s for, or what anything means.
Taylor: One thing that I struggle with personally is that I go in and get my numbers checked, and I have no idea what it means. In terms of blood pressure, can you tell me what a healthy range is, and what you should worry about?
Dr. Ekwenibe: The guidelines have become more strict recently. In the past, hypertension was considered a blood pressure greater than 140 over 90, but now they’ve reduced it to 130 over 80.
Taylor: If you say, “Listen, your blood pressure is 130 over 80”, then what?
Dr. Ekwenibe: It depends on your age. If a young person comes in and they’re a little overweight — they eat a ton of salt, drink a crap load of caffeine and Red Bull, then they can modify their lifestyle, and that can be enough to have a reduction in their blood pressure. Others may need assistance with medication.
If you’re 45 years-old, and your BMI is 33, which is a little obese, and your blood pressure is 150 over 90? We’ll probably start you on a medicine and have you begin some lifestyle modification.
Taylor: What age should you get a routine screening? Because my birthday is today!
Dr. Ekwenibe: [Laughs] I would say about mid-to-late 20s.
Taylor: Is that every year?
Dr. Ekwenibe: For heart health, a general baseline check-up, and then every three to five years, if you’re still feeling good, you can go back and get a check-up. Some people start at age 25 and go once a year but if you’re busy, you may go every three to five years. This guideline is for men and women.
Taylor: What are the big warning signs?
Dr. Ekwenibe: That’s a very important question. If you have a strong family history of heart disease you may want to be screened at an earlier age. For example, if your father had a heart attack at 40 years-old, you may want to get a baseline assessment in your late twenties or thirties. You should be monitored over time, and perhaps adjust some of your habits to avert your risk.
As for symptoms, a lot of women present atypically. Some just get really short of breath, feel like their bra is too tight, or just can’t get comfortable. Some women get really nauseous and fatigued. If you experience these symptoms, it’s always good to go and get checked out for peace of mind. In the African-American community we present symptoms later, and usually when we do the condition is more severe.
“In the African-American community we present symptoms later, and usually when we do the condition is more severe.”
Taylor: How long should I wait it out with any of those symptoms?
Dr. Ekwenibe: If you’re able to go about your day, make a doctors appointment. But if you feel aching, crushing pain, breaking out in a sweat, or you can barely walk, go to the emergency room immediately.
Taylor: Ok, last question! What’s your favorite heart-healthy meal? A meal you love!
Dr. Ekwenibe: [Laughs] Anything I can put in the oven, and walk away from. Salmon with a little olive oil on each side, seasoned with vegetables.
-- Dr. Jean Ekwenibe, M.D., F.A.C.C graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She received her medical degree from University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, and completed her fellowship at University of Texas at Houston. Dr. Ekwenibe currently works in Houston, TX in a private practice, as one of the providers for AdvaCardio, PLLC.