Exclusive Interview: Heart-to-heart talk with Oprah’s cardiologist

PINOY Newsmagazine/Inquirer.net/Philippine News
April 2005

Text and photo by Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — Because of “poor diet,” many Filipinos are vulnerable to heart disease, the number one killer in the United States.

Take that valuable words of caution from Dr. Annabelle Santos Volgman, one of the top cardiologists in the country. Volgman is the director of the Electrocardiography Services at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She also happens to be the cardiologist of TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

In an exclusive interview, the Marikina-born, New York-raised, medical practitioner laid out the scientific facts and enumerated crucial life-saving measures to protect one’s heart.

“Eighty percent of strokes and heart attacks are preventable,” Volgman declared. “And if more people knew that it’s in their hands to prevent them, I think they will change their lifestyle.”

For Filipino families, that change of lifestyle starts in the kitchen.

In her words, “Filipinos have terrible diet” because of food rich in cholesterol and salt. Cholesterol blocks the arteries and restricts normal blood flow in the body, while high concentration of salt induces high-blood pressure: A life-threatening, if not a killer combination.

“Avoid them altogether if you really want to avoid heart attacks and strokes,” she said.

For lechon-loving, Chinese buffet-raiding Filipino folks, that piece of advice may be hard to take. Sounds like an equivalent to solitary confinement or deportation. Volgman herself admitted that because it is a deeply-ingrained habit, that has become part of the culture, eating deliciously greasy and salty Filipino food is so hard to give up.

“But that is a choice that people have to make,” she said.

Five major factors

Volgman said there are five major factors contributing to heart disease: Family history, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

As in any other ethnic groups, those factors above may be present within the Filipino community; but because of the Filipino eating habits, the level of risk moves a notch higher. Other contributing factors include stress, obesity and lack of exercise.

“In order to prevent heart disease, you have to have a change in lifestyle,” she stressed.

Another essential part of that change is exercise. She said walking for, say, 30 minutes every day makes a lot of difference. Volgman practices what she preaches.

See a doctor

“If you cannot change your lifestyle, you need to see a physician who can put you on the right medication,” Volgman said. “If they go to a doctor to check their cholesterol and blood pressure; and listen to their doctor to take medication or to decrease their salt intake, it would make a huge difference. It will save their lives.”

While heart attacks remain the number one killer in America, the actual number of cases has declined.

“People are much more aware of how to prevent them. There are also less cigarette smokers, although it remains a big problem,” she said.

“There are also excellent medications. So a lot more people are having less heart attacks, because they are taking medications.” However, she noted, that healthcare is also becoming expensive. And research is also becoming very expensive. On the bright side, she said, “we wouldn’t be able to save a lot of lives if we hadn’t done these research studies.”

Listening to Dr. Volgman, it’s apparent that medicine is her passion.

Solid academic background

As a young girl growing up in Marikina, she has always wanted to be a doctor. Moving to the U.S. at the age of 11 paved the way to achieving her dream.

Since elementary, Anabelle excelled in the academics. “I got the right genes from my mother, Purificacion, and father, Raymundo,” she proudly declared.

In 1984, she graduated from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

“I remember when I went to New York. We lived in Washington Heights and we were passing by Columbia. I told my dad, ‘I like that place. I want to go there. And I did’.”

Following her graduation, then Dr. Santos had her medical training at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics for Internal Medicine Residency. For her Cardiology Fellowship Training, she went to Northwestern University Memorial Hospital.

She eventually ended up at Rush University, where she also serves in the faculty as a professor in medicine.

While at Rush, she landed a very high profile patient, when a fellow Columbia University graduate, Elena Campbell, a gynecologist at Northwestern University Hospital referred to her, Oprah Winfrey.

“She was having some pre-menopausal palpitations and she was very concerned, so her gynecologist referred her to me,” Dr. Volgman said. That meeting was highly publicized by the mega-entertainer in her magazine O.

“She’s an incredible woman. But it was also difficult because I have to remove the fact that she’s this huge personality and just focus on the person,” Volgman recalled her first meeting with the superstar. “I think my office was more excited, while I’m the one with all the pressure and the stress.”

“She’s doing all the right things and she work outs a lot,” Volgman said of Oprah, declaring her as “very healthy.”

Family first

Despite her level of achievement, Volgman remains unaffected by all the attention and the awards she gained through her profession. To her, her family remains the “first priority.”

The doctor is married to Keith A. Volgman, a Chicago-based lawyer, and they have two children Robert, 13 and Caroline, 9. Son Robert is part of the cast of “Carmen” at the Lyric Opera. The family lives in the upscale neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago.

“My family always comes first,” she said.

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