A living legend: Atlanta cardiologist changed how we think about women and heart disease

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With her petite frame, and quiet voice, Dr. Nanette Wenger is a legend at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital,  where she's been making the rounds for nearly 60 years.

"I love working and being with people," Dr. Wenger says. "I don't think I could be happy working with things."

WATCH: Meet this legendary doctor

Back in 1958, when Wenger joined the faculty of the Emory School of Medicine she was one of few women in a sea of white coats.

The daughter of Russian immigrants, one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Medical School, she chose to specialize in the human heart.

"This was the beginning of what I call the golden age of cardiology," Wenger says.

Heart surgery, common today, was just beginning.  

So were the first treatments to intervene and repair damaged hearts.

Dr. Wenger moved to Atlanta, fell in love with and married with another Emory doctor, raised three daughters, and blazed a trail. 

Because perhaps no doctor has done more to change we think about women and heart disease.

When she began working in cardiology, no one was talking about women's heart.

"Because the assumption was heart disease was a man's problem," says Wenger.

Dr. Wenger would help prove that is not true, that nearly 40% of women die from heart disease.  

But back then, women weren't included in heart disease research, and doctors knew almost nothing about how to intervene and help them.

"People began to listen," Dr. Wenger says. "That is the most exciting part about this."

In a half century, Dr. Wenger has authored or co-authored about 1,600 scientific papers, trying to understand heart disease affects women, and what can be done to protect their hearts.

"I expect I'm most proud of having asked the questions," she says.  "Because until the question is asked, there is really not the impetus to start answering it."

The more we learn - the more questions Dr. Wenger has.

She wants to understand more about heart disease in older women.

And why pregnancy complications like preeclampsia raise a woman's risk of heart disease later in life.

Another focus, why some treatment for common cancers like breast cancer can damage the heart. 

"I hate to say to a woman, 'Congratulations. Your breast cancer is cured, but you now have heart disease," she says. 

Dr. Wenger is now 87, a grandmother several times over, and still working, as Professor (Emeritus) at the Emory School of Medicine.

Wenger says she is thankful she followed her own heart more than a half century ago.

"I had no concept of where this would lead.  And I never anticipated it would be this exciting, and this rewarding, but for that, I am grateful."

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