When I think about heart attacks, old men in sweater vests and glasses come to mind. Actually I don’t think about heart attacks much. I’m (fairly) young, (reasonably) fit. I don’t smoke, limit my alcohol, my kale smoothies are legendary, and I practice yoga every day. I certainly never expected to find myself on the receiving end of crushing chest pain. But last week after a (healthy) dinner of fish and veggies, I was doing the dishes and complained of heartburn. Thinking it would pass and was likely due to a few too many Advil for a foot injury, I went to bed. Over the next four hours the pain increased, migrating to my chest and back. When it started shooting down my arm I began Googling heart attack symptoms on my iPhone. Twenty minutes of denial passed, then I gently woke my partner and told him what was happening.
Fifteen minutes later I was in the emergency room.
The statistics for women and heart disease are sobering. According to WomensHeart.org, 8.6 million women worldwide die each year from heart disease. Under the age of 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal. Each year, 267,000 women die from heart attacks, which kill six times as many women annually as breast cancer.
So what happened? I can’t really tell you. It certainly wasn’t lifestyle related. An angiogram, two CATScans, an x-ray and and ultrasound of my heart revealed no arterial blocks or clots, but my blood work, symptoms and pain all said otherwise. The big tests only reveal the big arteries, but the millions of micro vessels can be affected too, causing what they call a microvascular attack.
During transport from the emergency room to the Shaprio Cardiac Center of Brigham & Women’s Hospital, I was pretty out of it. My EMT kept talking to me, asking me if I knew what was happening. “They said they think I’m having a heart attack,” I muttered. “You ARE having a heart attack,” he said emphatically. (FWIW I’ll take advice from an EMT any day… those peeps have SEEN stuff..!) Once the doctors and I pieced together my family history and lab results, it was determined my heart attack was the genetic variety, meaning I have a family history of heart disease.
I’ve never had high blood pressure or cholesterol for that matter – the few times I’ve actually checked. I’m not easily mistaken for Mama June, sitting on the couch, eating johnny cakes. I’m healthy. I’m active. I juice for heaven’s sake. I never considered myself a candidate for a heart attack, but I had one. Now I have a cardiologist and a long list of meds that block BETAS, thin blood, reduce blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, coat my esophagus, and require consults with the pharmacist upon pick up.
I wish there was a moral to the story, or that cutting back on red meat and ice cream would put me in a low risk/no risk category. What I do know is my children–who’ve been wonderful and funny and supportive during this ordeal–have been told they have a family history of heart disease and need to pay attention. I know you need to advocate for yourself and not let someone on the night shift say you’re likely having a bad anxiety attack if you know in your heart something is wrong (see what I did there!) I urge you, if you know you have a family history of heart disease, make sure you know the signs of a heart attack, and call 911 if you even think you may be having one.