A few weeks ago, my husband got a very, very unexpected phone call. His parents said that they were in the hospital having some tests run because his mother had some unresolved heartburn. It turns out, she had a heart attack. She had two major blockages in her heart. One of them was so large, it required two stents to repair. When Rick hung up the phone he said, “Mom doesn’t deserve a heart attack.” What he meant by that was that some people overeat, smoke, or have sedentary lifestyles, but not her. She hadn’t done anything to warrant a heart attack. She is young (63) and active with good cholesterol levels and has no history of heart disease in her family-until now. She sent me a recap of her story. As she went into depth of her experiences leading up to and after her heart attack, it was clear to me that her symptoms had been there already for months, perhaps years-lingering. Waiting for the moment to pounce and say, “YOU SHOULD PROBABLY GO TO THE ER, LADY! I AM DONE PLAYING AROUND!”
Luckily for her and her countless friends and family who are loyal members of the “Patty Is Awesome And I Want To Be Her Friend Forever” club, she listened to her heart. (Wasn’t that punny?) She survived because she paid attention and now, she wants to make sure others know that you don’t have to be old and unhealthy to have a heart attack. Here is her story:
Before the night of her heart attack, Mom had already been having some warning signs. Over the past several months, she had battled with heartburn on and off (which we now know was literally HEART pain), bouts of dizziness(which could very well be caused by reduced oxygen), jaw aches (BIG warning sign of heart attack in women), and-here is the kicker-numbness down her left arm. She even went to the doctor about the numbness and was sent home. Like-HYELLO?!-doctors do a really good job of ticking me off in situations like this. There are two lessons here: 1.Listen to your body, it might be serious even if you think it’s not and 2. Sometimes, doctors suck. If a doctor ever brushes off a symptom, get a second opinion.
Rant over. Deep angry breath. I digress. So, on the night of her heart attack, Mom had a little heartburn, took some Tums and went to bed. Around 1:30AM, her heartburn had grown so intense that it woke her up. Because she is young and active and has no reason to have heart disease, Mom decides she will just go to sleep sitting up in her recliner so the “reflux” will improve. She had these attacks before and they usually resolved within the hour. Relief never came. She took two more Tums and began to sweat and her jaw began to hurt-as it often did during previous “heartburn” episodes. When her husband (my father-in-law) came to check on her, she ran to the bathroom and threw up. Her body was obviously trying to tell her something. In hindsight, it was obviously saying, “YOU ARE HAVING A HEART ATTACK!”, but we all know that whole 20/20-thing. At 3:15AM, Mom and Dad went to the ER.
I know how they felt. I have never had a heart attack, but I took my own father to the ER in the midst of a major heart attack. I was a nurse. I knew the signs. He was white as a ghost, nauseous, screaming in pain(from his chest), short of breath, with a pain down his left arm. Even then. EVEN THEN-I didn’t think he was actually haven’t a heart attack. It’s one of those things that you don’t think you’ll ever experience or witness. Your body quickly goes into denial that you or your loved one could be in any serious danger. I personally believe it is a way to stay strong in scary situations.
So, that is probably why, when Dad dropped Mom off at the ER door, she quite patiently followed the directions of the front desk employee to sit and wait until she could be seen. Dad had instructed her to tell them she was having chest pains and they still didn’t treat her with any urgency. While Mom and Dad agreed that she wasn’t showing classic heart attack symptoms, Dad knew something was up. The word the staff would use later (until tests were confirmed) was “heart event”. Walking in, Dad was surprised to see his wife sitting in the waiting area and sought immediate attention. I still don’t think either one of them thought that Mom might be having a heart attack. She didn’t fit the profile. She never grabbed her chest and fell to the ground like stories so many of us have heard. She didn’t do what so many people think you do when you have a heart attack. Still, they knew something was wrong. Her EKG was abnormal and they decided to admit her, but she couldn’t possibly be having a heart attack! I mean, whatever it was, it wasn’t good-but a heart attack? Nope. No way. Which is why, when the hospital wanted to transfer her to another hospital with available beds via ambulance, Dad asked if he could drive her himself. They advised against it-because you know-she might have a heart attack-so Mom got to take her first (and hopefully last) super cool ride in an ambulance!
Because of blood thinners, Mom was no longer having any chest pain. This allowed her to really enjoy the adventures of ambulance-riding. We don’t want to admit it, but it’s got to be pretty cool being in an ambulance. You are so important that traffic legally has to stop for you. The EMT, said they were going 55 in a 35 and turned his siren on at each intersection-AND ALL FOR MOM-who definitely, was not having a heart attack, but was secretly enjoying her thrill ride.
The rollercoaster was over as they arrived at a new hospital in the Cardiac Care Unit. Every inch of Mom’s body was used to store some sort of wire-medicinal-technology-thing-a-ma-jigs. There were monitors and screens and blood draws and nurses and doctors and CNAs and everyone was everywhere and then-it all stopped. She felt fine and she and Dad were forced to sit there and wait-bored out of their minds. Finally, someone announced that Mom would get to participate in-drum roll please-a stress test! After they wheeled her down, injected dye, and explained the test, they were stopped by a nurse who said her troponin levels were elevated. Like-REALLY-elevated. Which means that she definitely had a heart attack. Her PA came in a bit later to recommend a heart catheterization to find the cause of the attack and repair it quickly. At 5 PM the same day, Mom is lying on a table, with a catheter traveling up her femoral artery and into her heart. She is awake for the entire thing and can actually see her heart on a screen beside her. Dye is injected. Blockages are discovered. Stents are placed. Voila! The clogged pipes are cleared. She is fixed. She is alive. Mom is going to be okay. She returns to Dad in her hospital room better than she left him. Oxygenated blood is now flowing easily through her arteries. No wonder Mom’s PA told her she would feel better than she has felt in five years. He said she probably doesn’t even know how bad she felt because it happened so gradually.
We are so happy and lucky that things went down the way they did. A life without Momo would be a challenge for us all. Her children and grandchildren would be lost without her. Katy, Kym, and Rick are all on board for lifestyle changes and spreading heart disease awareness as they look forward to checking a new box on their medical histories. (Welcome to the club, guys!)
Even though she feels very foolish (even though she shouldn’t), Mom gave me to permission to share her story because SHE DOES NOT WANT IT TO HAPPEN TO YOU. One in three women die of heart disease and stroke. ONE IN THREE. That’s A THIRD OF ALL WOMEN. With numbers like that, we really should be paying attention to our bodies. Our bodies speak to us and we must learn to listen before it’s too late. The first step is to educate yourself on heart disease in women. The second is to educate others by sharing the information you’ve learned. For more information from The American Heart Association on Going Red For Women, please click HERE. Don’t assume that other women know this. It needs to be reiterated that even if you think you’re healthy. Even if you think you’re too young or too active. Even if your cholesterol levels are okay. Even if you are YOU-and YOU could never have a heart attack-You could. You might. A third of women reading this post WILL. Your family is counting on you to look for the signs. Please join me and my family by wearing red and sharing this information with others. Save a life.