There was this brief moment where I felt like I was floating…and then it hit me. A strong crushing feeling overcame me, and I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe. My chest hurt, as if I was having a contraction in the center of my chest. I helplessly sank off the couch, in pain and confusion as to what was happening. I was 35. The last thing on my mind was that I was having a heart attack. That day began a 7 year medical journey that started with surviving a heart attack. As February 1st is Go Red for Women, we are talking about heart health for women. I want to share about heart attack symptoms in women and how I survived 3 heart attacks, finally finding a medical diagnosis.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women and How I Survived 3 Heart Attacks
Thankfully, many days I can forget that this is part of my story. I feel good and am able to do most of the things I want to do. I survived my heart attacks. And I have a life that allows me to adjust for my bad days of fatigue, chest pain and mental fatigue.
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But, honestly, having 3 heart attacks has radically altered my life and thrust me into a group I never imagined I would be a part of: heart attack survivor.
Surviving a Heart Attack
On that day, I was at my home, saying good-bye to my husband. He was leaving for a 2 week dream back country hunting trip out West. And I was preparing to take the kids to a homeschool picnic.
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As I struggled to figure out what was going on physically, I started feeling so hot. I went to our bedroom and lay down on the carpet by the air vent, telling my husband to turn up the ac. Within 15 or 20 minutes, I started feeling better, almost embarrassed at myself.
I wasn’t super excited about my husband heading off for his dream vacation while I was home with the kids. But his vacation was happening, so I certainly wanted him to have a good time and not appear to be trying to sideline his trip.
He left shortly later. And I took an ibuprofen and went on my way.
Several days later, my sister-in-law and I took our kids to a local water park. I started noticing that I was having trouble with the stairs. I felt winded and as if my body was working against me. After playing on the monkey bars (which I don’t recommend in the middle of a heart attack), I felt nauseated, and my arms seemed heavy and weighted down to my sides like they were 100 lbs each.
These were all signs of a heart attack.
We left a little while later, and I again took some ibuprofen.
By the next morning I was still in so much pain. My chest ached and felt so uncomfortable. Thinking I was having heart burn, I took some pepto.
I couldn’t get an appointment at the doctor’s office, which I am now thankful for, so my mom came over to watch the kids while I drove to the ER.
At the ER, I told them I was having chest pain, and they whisked me into the back where they started giving me nitroglycerin and taking an EKG. The EKG was fine (as mine almost always are), but they also took blood work. I started vomiting a lot. I’m not sure if it was the shock of the nitro or just symptoms of the heart attack. Later heart attacks would cause me to become very nauseated and physically sick.
“You are Having a Heart Attack”
Some friends from church were with me when the doctor came in to tell me that I was having a heart attack. I remember the moment and also the total confusion I felt as I wondered if the doctor was joking.
The doctor told me that I was going to be sent to another hospital to undergo a heart catheterization procedure to see the inside of my heart. Obviously, at age 35 I had no idea what he was talking about. They began getting me ready to send by ambulance.
It was at that inopportune time that my phone rang. I hadn’t talked to my husband in 4 days since he had no signal in the back country of Colorado. But he and his friends had found a spot out in the wilderness where he had a tiny bit of signal. I thought about not answering it. What was I going to say, “Hi, yes, I’m fine. I’m just about to be loaded into an ambulance. How are you?”
I answered the phone and told my husband what was happening to the best of my understanding, omitting the word heart attack as I felt for sure the doctors were wrong. On his end, he rushed to get off the mountain and to the airport.
For the next four days, I was in the hospital. It was confirmed that I had a heart attack and also that my heart had a small amount of damage. The only explanation I was given was that I had a “spasm” of some sort. I was told it was probably a fluke and that another heart attack was unlikely to happen again.
The only warning sign I had in the months prior to my heart attack was that my blood pressure kept going up. I recognized it as I had experienced high blood pressure when I was pregnant with my daughter. I went to the doctor, but I was told not to worry about the high blood pressure.
Recovering from a Heart Attack at Age 35
It took about a year to feel back to full strength. At that time, most of my energy was spent on getting better and less on understanding what had happened. I had 3 kids at home (4, 12 and 15) so there wasn’t a ton of time to sit around thinking about my heart attack.
I was able to get off of most medication, other than blood pressure medicine.
The Second Heart Attack
Two summers later, we took an amazing camping trip out west with the kids. The trip and summer were lovely, and I felt great.
That October, while teaching a group by myself, I had the same moment of feeling like I was floating and then sudden crushing chest pain out of nowhere. A family I was working with was upset and while it wasn’t fun to interact with them I had worked with far worse. So again no big warning signs right before.
I realized what was happening, and dismissed the class. My class was in a locked down facility that acts as a juvenile detention center, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Again, I had no major warning signs in the weeks prior, other than feeling unusually tired. On a strange side note, I had once again been at a park, like the prior heart attack, this time the zoo:).
I drove myself to the dollar store and picked up some aspirin. Finally, able to get a hold of one of my sister-in-laws who lived nearby, I drove to her house. They then took me to the local ER.
Another heart cath and heart enzyme tests revealed that my heart was again under stress. Again, I wasn’t given any real reason as to what was happening. Fortunately, since I went to the hospital immediately and took aspirin I didn’t have any heart damage this time.
My First Attempt to Find a Medical Diagnosis
For the next few months, my husband and I went to various specialists, including going to Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Everyone was sure it wasn’t my heart so though I saw a cardiologists, it felt like I was barely looked at as a serious heart patient.
So while I received wonderful care at Cleveland Clinic, I was not given any real answers.
My health remained pretty stable for the next few years, but I was plagued with periods of fatigue and chest pain that would come and go without any apparent rhyme or reason.
It would take one more heart attack to find an answer!
The Third Heart Attack
In November 2016, 7 years after my first heart attack, I was home with my daughter. Sitting at my computer, I suddenly had a crushing pain, come and then leave immediately. My mom had just called to tell me that she and my dad had been in a fender binder but were fine. I was surprised by the reaction of my body since it wasn’t any scary or truly bad news.
I decided to go lay down immediately and take a nitroglycerin. After the last heart attack, I learned to carry nitroglycerin with me at all times…just in case.
I took a nitroglycerin but instead of feeling better, I suddenly felt horrible.
My mind began racing as to my options. I was in such pain, I knew that I was in trouble. One’s thinking becomes very fuzzy when your body is not functioning properly so I was really struggling with what to do.
My husband was an hour away. My in-laws didn’t live far, but I was worried as to how much time I had to make a plan. I tried to call my husband but he didn’t pick up. So I called 911 and told them I was pretty sure I was having another heart attack.
My tween daughter found me in my room, writhing in pain. She took the phone and talked to the 911 operator. I remember speaking to my husband at some point before the ambulance arrived. My in-laws arrived to care for my daughter.
At the ER, they were able to get the pain under control. My husband arrived and we declined for me to be moved immediately to another hospital for another heart cath. Heart catheterizations are so expensive. And all we knew was that I had just had a 3rd “spasm.”
Little did we know that my heart attacks were a result of a more serious condition. We decided to go ahead the next day to have the surgery as my cardiologist was very concerned. It had been 5 years since my last heart catheterization. A couple of days later, again I was released in stable condition but with no reason why.
Finally, A Diagnosis
Within the month we were back up at Cleveland Clinic to see a Coronary Artery Spasm specialist. Sometimes the body can have involuntary spasms in the small or major vessels of the heart.
The specialist took a look at all 3 heart catheterization I had done over the past 7 years. The cardiologist specialist said, “Oh, well you are a classic case of SCAD.” To this I promptly burst into tears.
It had taken so long to understand what was happening. It was a relief. Finally having a diagnosis was also such a disappointment that for so many years I had been operating under the incorrect diagnosis.
It was also scary since SCAD can be deadly, especially if one is not aware of their condition!
SCAD is Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection where the small or large arteries in the heart will spontaneously dissect, becoming drastically thinner or splitting the layers.
This creates its own blood “blockage” cutting off oxygen to certain parts of the heart. It is rare. Since SCAD affects women who are considered young to be having a heart attack (ages 35-55), it is often not caught or misdiagnosed. And if a SCAD survivor’s heart is looked at a month or 2 later, the heart reflects a normal, healthy heart.
Know the Heart Attack Symptoms of Women and Trust Your Instincts
My story is over 7 years, so it is too long to share everything in one post. But here are a couple of takeaways that I want you to know!
- Trust your instincts – There were several symptoms that I kept thinking were related, like the fact that my hormones were some how involved. And it turns out that SCAD can be triggered by stress but also hormones and pregnancy.
- Seek out the best care you can for your body. It was hard finding time, money and babysitters to go to a special hospital hours away. And it doesn’t always result in a diagnosis. But you really are worth all the effort and you are more likely to get a diagnosis and valuable information. And going to the best medical centers, like Cleveland Clinic or Mayo, saves you time as multiple tests can be run in one day!
- Know the signs of a heart attack in women and don’t delay care. For women, heart attack symptoms may include strong fatigue, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, nausea, jaw pain, back pain, vomiting, chest pain, radiating arm pain or heaviness in the arms.