A Journey of the Heart
With February being American Heart Month, I wanted to share my story of surviving my heart attack, the emotions I experienced during and following my heart attack, and to bring awareness to facts, statistics, and symptoms on women and heart disease. Even though it is scary to think of, heart disease is the #1 killer of women in America. My hope is to bring awareness to women so they can protect themselves and have more knowledge than I did.
My personal journey with heart disease began on December 11, 2016. It was very early Sunday morning, around 12:30 am (still a Saturday night for us). The details of the night seem enhanced in my memory which is surprising because you would think they would be very vague. We paused our movie, which was Elf, to walk our dogs. I had the leash of our schnoodle. He’s only 17 pounds, but when he decides he wants to go somewhere, he bolts.
On this particular night, that’s exactly what he did. He jerked my arm that was holding the leash, but it didn’t hurt and I really didn’t think anymore about it. About 45 minutes later, the pain began.
I started having pain in my back in the left shoulder blade. I thought that maybe he had pulled a muscle when he jerked me by pulling the leash. Over the next 10 minutes, the pain intensified and started radiating down my left arm. I felt the oddest feeling over my entire body like I was shaking or quivering all over on the inside. Then came the nausea and the cold sweat. “Damn it,” I thought to myself, “something is definitely wrong.”
I told my daughters what was happening and, because they insisted, we headed to the emergency room. The ER got me in quickly and started tests immediately. My first EKG looked normal. They ran blood tests and my cardiac enzymes were elevated indicating a heart attack, so they did a second EKG which then showed abnormalities.
The ER doctor started giving me doses of morphine to relax my heart and they told me I needed to be transported to a larger hospital that had cardiologists on duty. After the 30 mile ambulance ride, I was taken straight to the cath lab. Thankfully, they were able to run the line through the vein in my arm and not the groin area. Once he saw the blockages and what was currently causing my heart attack (which it was called the “widow maker”)`, he placed the stent. Once that artery was opened, I felt immediate relief. No more pain, no more shaking, nothing. I started to relax.
If I had not listened to my body, the doctors told me my chances of survival that night were only 15%. If I would have just thought my dog had pulled a muscle when he bolted on the leash, and went on to bed, my chances of waking up the next morning were only 15%. I was in shock when I was told this. I felt blessed and very thankful. I realized I must still have a purpose here. I also felt scared, devastated, and like my world was spinning.
The next day I learned that I would have to have open-heart surgery soon. I thought I was fine after the stent. I was wrong. The cardiologist wanted to wait a month before doing surgery to give my heart time to rest. My surgery was scheduled for 1/27/17. I had 5 bypasses and spent 7 days in the hospital.
It was a long, painful recovery. I hurt everywhere. I had to hold a pillow to cough and I quickly learned that you never, ever sneeze after open-heart surgery. No one had warned me about this and I sneezed one time and I thought my damn chest was going to split wide open. I didn’t allow myself to sneeze for months after that. It was difficult to breath because my rib cage hurt after being split open like a chicken. But I made it. With the help of my daughters, who were awesome caregivers, I recovered.
My depression intensified and the anxiety kicked in. Your whole life is flipped upside down. I was scared of every pain, every odd feeling. Am I going to die? Will I have to go back to the hospital? Have another surgery? After 6 months or so, the paranoia begins to decrease some, but it’s always in the back of your mind. You begin to live with your “new normal”, really because you have no other choice. There was a battle in my mind that, yes, I was grateful to have survived, but was I ready to go on living like this?
I had no previous symptoms of heart disease. No previous heart issues or diagnosis. Now here I was living with another chronic condition.
I now try to advocate to people, especially women, about the importance of listening to your body. If you have any symptoms, please have yourself checked. Looking back, the only symptom I had that may have been heart related was extreme fatigue. However, I battle my depression on a daily basis so I was used to feeling absolutely worn out. Other than that, I fall into the 64% of women who have no previous symptoms before having their heart attack.
Facts and Statistics: Women and Heart Disease
- Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States
- 1 in 3 women dies from heart disease in the United States every year
- Heart disease affects women of ALL ages
- 64% of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms
- Fewer women than men survive their first heart attack
- 90% of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease
- Heart attack symptoms can be different in women vs men, and are often misunderstood
Symptoms of a heart attack in women:
- Shortness of breath
- Back/shoulder pain
- Pain in the lower chest
- Jaw pain
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Extreme fatigue
Facts, statistics, and symptoms courtesy of www.goredforwomen.org, the American Heart Association
If I can bring awareness to just one woman by sharing my story, then I will feel like I have accomplished my goal. I share my story to anyone who asks or notices that I’m now part of the “zipper club” (my scar). Heart disease is scary. It can be silent. It can appear suddenly, without warning. Be aware. Protect yourself by learning the symptoms. Educate yourself by learning the facts. Know your body and what’s “normal’ for it and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to speak up to the doctors to let them know when something is not right for you.
Take care of your heart, your body, your mind, your spirit.
Take care of you,