I Had a Heart Attack at 45...and I'm a Woman!
Heart Disease and My Personal Experience
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. Did you know that before you read that sentence? Before having my heart attack, I did not know that. Now that I have had a heart attack, that's a fact I now know and pay attention to. Coronary heart disease, where the buildup of plague causes a blockage of blood to the heart, is the most common form of heart disease in men and women. That is what happened to me, and even though it happened in 2005, it still seems like an unbelievable event in my life. I am blessed to be still alive, and I hope other women can learn from my story.
The Cause and Effect
In January of 2005, I filed for divorce from my husband of 16 years. We had three children together, and I had always believed that couples should not get divorced. For the last five years of my marriage though I had felt like staying married was a worse situation for the children and me. And it was obvious that their father wasn't happy either. After I filed, things were very tense in our house as both of us stayed in the home with the children who were ages 10, 10 and 13 at the time. I went to the required parenting class and paid close attention to what they told parents we should do and not do, to keep the situation optimum for the children. One of these tips was not to fight in front of the children. I refused to fight with him in front of the kids. I avoided him when he was in a bad mood, and tried to keep the children away when he was angry. I just went through the motions of what I needed to do to get through each day. I found a new job that provided me with better money than working as a self-employed person had. I had serious talks with the kids about our future and how everything would work out and listened to their concerns. I even brought them to family counseling.
Finally, on August 4th, 2005 my girls came crying to me about a situation with their dad, and I calmly asked him not to involve the children in our problems. Once he started to raise his voice, it was as though a switch inside me flipped on, and I verbally poured forth all my anger and disappointment that had been bottled up for 16 years. If I had been successful in those years of getting him to go couple's counseling with me, I don't think I would have been at this point. But he had refused, and so everything came out that one night. There was anger, there were loud voices, but worst of all, there were our three kids in the house listening to every word we yelled back and forth at each other. That, my friends, is what I believe, put me over the edge. I had tried so hard to keep my feelings of anger, and frustration bottled up away from the kids, that when it all came spewing out that one night in front of them, it caused me so much stress, and raised my blood pressure so high, that it was too much for my heart. I do consciously remember thinking, during this argument, that I needed to stop because the kids heard all of this, but I was unable to stop the fountain of anger, disappointment and hurt that came spewing out of my mouth during that 15 minute period.
When it was over, and my ex walked out the door, I suddenly became aware of the pain in both of my arms. It was an ache so bad that I felt like I had been punching a punching bag for three hours. My arms felt exhausted, and the pain ran from my shoulders to my hands. I didn't think it was a heart attack because I had always heard that arm pain in a heart attack is in the left arm. I hadn't ever heard that it was in both arms or the right arm. I went upstairs to my bedroom and lay down on the bed. One of my daughters came with me and was asking me questions about the argument. I told her that I couldn't talk about it right then because I was very stressed out and I needed to try to calm down. She didn't understand and kept asking questions, which made me more stressed because it strengthened my concerns about what the kids had heard. I became aware of my chest feeling really tight, and I again thought I was feeling that way due to stress, so I must be having an anxiety attack. After all, I was young and a woman, and we don't have heart attacks with symptoms like that. Since I couldn't relax and stop the pain, I decided to call the girl down the street how had just recently become a nurse. She came up to my house, and I explained my symptoms. She didn't have her blood pressure cuff at her house but brought her stethoscope. She said my heart was beating a mile a minute and that under the circumstances she thought I should go to the Emergency Room to get it checked out. I told her I thought it was just an anxiety attack, and therefore what's the worst that could happen? She said, 'You could drop dead in front of your kids." That's all she needed to say. She wanted to drive me to the hospital, but I was concerned about the kid's welfare, so asked her to stay with them so they wouldn't be worried, and I would drive myself. She reminded me that people who are having heart attacks should not be driving cars. Again I told her I was sure it was just an anxiety attack.
The Hospital Experience
On the way to the hospital, the pain started to subside, but when I thought about the possibility that I was having a heart attack, the pain would become stronger. By the time I got to the Emergency Room, I was in tears from the fear of the situation. I told the check-in clerk at the front desk that I was either having an anxiety attack or a heart attack. Big mistake I found out later. If someone thinks they may be having a heart attack, that is the information that needs to be given at the Emergency Room. Otherwise, as in my case, they may look at you, decide you're too young, and a woman, and make you wait to be seen. A lot of damage can be done to a heart while waiting to be seen in the Emergency room waiting area. The clerk had someone else with him and asked me to sit down and wait till he was done. When he did take my blood pressure, it was 194 over 92. This was about one hour after the argument had ended. I usually had low blood pressure, so this was high. He told me to have a seat, and someone would call me. During the one hour that I waited to be seen, I called my parents and asked them to head to my house and stay with the kids so they wouldn't worry, and they could relieve the neighbor who was there. That made me feel better already because I don't like to inconvenience people and I wanted the neighbor to be able to go home.
After an hour, I was brought into a room in the ER, seen by a nurse and someone took blood out of my arm so that they could run some tests. I also had an EKG procedure performed which is when they use a machine to check the rhythms of the heart. Another wait ensued, but when they came back to see me, I was quite shocked when they told me I had indeed, had a heart attack. Tears poured out of my eyes when I realized how serious the situation was. I had a hard time even believing them, but when they told me I was being admitted to the hospital and starting on medication to prevent further damage to my heart, the reality sunk in. The doctor came in and spoke to me and asked me what had led up to the heart attack. I explained about the divorce and the argument in front of the kids. He told me in the morning they would do an angiogram to find out if there was a blockage. They started me on medication and told me I would immediately be started on a low fat, low salt diet, which I would need to follow the rest of my life. It was 3:00 a.m. before I was settled in a room. Although I was tired, it was hard to sleep because so many thoughts were going through my head. I finally drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, a bright and chipper cardiologist walked into my room and introduced himself. He told me even he was surprised that I had had a heart attack. I was about 20 pounds overweight, but that in itself should not cause any issues this serious. My bad cholesterol (LDL) level was in the average/high range, but again not high enough to worry them about a heart concern. My good cholesterol (HDL) level was low, and that could have caused concern. He asked me about the events leading up to the attack. Again I had to go through the whole story of what had happened the night before. He explained the angiogram process, and I was prepped to go downstairs. The angiogram process involves inserting a small tube into your body, taking x-ray pictures while contrast (x-ray dye) is being injected into a vessel, and then removing the catheter. I was numbed in the area where the small tube was inserted, and given a muscle relaxer before they inserted the small tube. The staff performing the procedure talked to me while the procedure was being done to make sure I was comfortable. The worst part of the angiogram was all the bruising over the next few days at and around the site where they had inserted the tube. They couldn't really figure out what was going on with my heart and they couldn't find a blockage. I stayed in the hospital for three days, and the morning of the fourth day, I again started having arm pain, and this time I started feeling dizzy. Since they couldn't discover what the issue was at my local hospital, I was sent an hour away to Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. They performed another angiogram with more sophisticated instruments and this time they did find what they were looking for. Apparently, I have a very small blockage in an artery very far away from my heart. The artery is so small that it cannot be reopened with a stent. The good news is that it looked like there was no permanent damage to my heart. I was surprised and relieved about that. I was told to go home, follow a low salt, low fat, low cholesterol diet, exercise, lose weight, avoid stress, and see my cardiologist regularly. I was also put on medication for various symptoms: Zocor for high cholesterol, Imdur for angina, a baby aspirin once per day, and Coreg for high blood pressure. I went from being on absolutely no medication to 4 different types daily. I was disappointed in myself for being so young and to have gotten in a situation where I needed that much medication so that in itself was rather depressing.
Recuperating and Update
I went home to recuperate. I felt like a different person after the heart attack. At first, I was depressed. I was still in shock that this had happened to me at such a young age. But heart disease does run in my family. I had a great uncle who dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 36. My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack, as did my paternal grandmother. But it seemed like one of those experiences that would never happen to me.
I feel blessed and as though I had a second chance at life. That part was good. I was determined not to let stress get to me as it did before the heart attack. So one of the ways that manifest itself is that I don't get as upset with my kids when they do things to annoy me or make choices that I think are wrong. I try to stay calm for my health rather than raise my voice as I might have in the past. I used to love to go shopping for bargains. My mom and I would go out at 9:00 a.m. and not return home until 9:00 p.m., and we would have a carload full of bargains. For the first year after the heart attack, I had trouble physically shopping for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time and only did that at Christmas. I no longer had the stamina or the interest to shop longer. And although I have regained my energy level, I am no longer interested in mega shopping trips. This is a benefit to my new husband!
I have always appreciated the blessings that God has given me, but more so now. I don't take life for granted anymore. I do struggle with my weight still, unfortunately. I got married again two years ago and had lost weight and exercised almost every day. When I went to the cardiologist after the wedding in August 2010, he congratulated me on having graduated from his services because everything checked out so well regarding weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. I was taken off all the medication except the Zocor for the cholesterol, and I do still take a baby aspirin every day just to be on the safe side. I have gained some of that weight back that I lost for the wedding. I do try to lose the weight, but it comes and goes in spurts. I am currently trying to lose the weight I have put on over the past few years by just changing my diet and exercising every day. I am losing it slower than I have done in the past, hoping it becomes part of my everyday routine. I am more tired now than I used to be. If I don't sleep at least 9 hours each night ( and who has time to do that???), I need a nap to get through the day. I feel lazy sometimes doing it, but if it works, it's important for me to do to protect my health.
I had my heart attack seven years ago now. I have not had any more complications regarding my heart. When I look at the statistics of people who have heart attacks and died, I am once again reminded of how blessed I am. I don't ever want to have another heart attack, so I need to be ever mindful of the results of overeating and lack of exercise so that it won't happen again. Because if I do have another heart attack, I may not be so fortunate next time. Fifty percent of people that have heart attacks do not survive. I hope that other women who read this story can benefit from my experience, and most importantly get themselves to a doctor or hospital as soon as possible if they feel any symptoms that may be a result of a heart attack. It's much better to be safe than sorry.
But here is a reminder to anyone who may think they are having a heart attack: Don't second guess it when you get to the hospital. Tell everyone you see that you think you are having a heart attack, even if you are not sure. This is ESPECIALLY true if you are a woman, or younger than 50. Minutes are important when it comes to your heart, and the quicker you get help, the less damage there will be. If it's not a heart attack, that's great and although you may be embarrassed, protecting your heart is more important than a little embarrassment!
This book will go a long way in helping prevent a heart attack if you are a woman!
Here's an experience that presents as a heart attack...
- Broken Heart Syndrome...Can You really Die of a Broken Heart?
Broken heart syndrome mimics a heart attack, but usually does not cause permanent damage. The causes, symptoms and treatments are listed here.
© 2012 Karen Hellier