Prairie Doc Perspectives: The heart of the matter

Jill Kruse
The Kansan

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference for women physicians. My talk opened with a simple question. What organ does the heart supply blood to first? It was a deceptively simple question, but the room was silent as they all pondered what they thought was a trick question. Various answers came in, but they were all wrong. Everyone else tried to guess what the most important organ would be that would receive the blood first. They tried to deduce which organ was physically the closest to the heart.

The next slide in my talk was a picture of the heart from an anatomy textbook and there I showed the answer. The heart feeds itself first. The very first blood vessels that branch off the heart at the aorta are the coronary arteries. These are the blood vessels that feed the heart and are the ones that, when blocked, cause a heart attack.

This was not a talk about anatomy, and it wasn’t a lesson in physiology. It was a conference on self-care. No one has ever called the heart a selfish organ. We call someone who is generous and kind as someone who has a “big heart.” The heart’s sole purpose is to supply oxygenated blood to the entire body, and it beats constantly from before we are born until the moment we die. The only way it can do this is by taking care of itself and making sure its needs are met first. Yet when we think of taking time for ourselves or saying “no” to someone’s request because we do not have the time or energy to help, we often feel selfish.

When the heart does not have enough blood flow to an area, or there is a blockage in a vessel, it causes pain. Sometimes people ignore this pain and push through. Sometimes the pain goes away, only to come back later when the demands on the heart grow stronger. If the area of the heart is starved for blood for long enough, that part of the heart dies. If a large enough area of the heart dies, then the heart cannot effectively pump blood to the rest of the body and the person may die of a heart attack.

We need to follow this example in how we treat ourselves. We need to take care of ourselves — emotionally, physically, and spiritually — before we can take care of others. If we ignore this and take care of our needs last, our ability to care for not only ourselves, but others will suffer. Be like the heart, tirelessly giving and kind to the entire body, but most importantly ensuring that the giving and kindness applies to you first and foremost.

Jill Kruse, D.O., is part of The Prairie Doc team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, S.D. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc library, visit and follow Prairie Doc on Facebook, featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc a medical Q&A show streamed most Thursdays at 7 p.m. central.

The Kansan