Friday, March 6, 2009

Heart Attacks are Different for Women

Do your self breast exam!

(don't you just love all the little sites out there for breast cancer awareness and research? They have all these fun little buttons and slogans... ☺ )

I appreciated all your input last month about which topics you'd like to hear more about. I'll get to them. ☺ But I recently received the following story via email and felt it would be a good idea to share it here.
Hopefully by now most women are aware that when we have heart attacks, we usually do not have the same symptoms as men--the stabbing pain in the chest, cold sweat, pain in the left arm... here is a firsthand account from a woman who had a heart attack, including excellent descriptions of how it felt.
I had a heart attack about 10 :30 PM with NO prior exertion, NO prior emotional trauma that one would suspect might've brought it on.

I was sitting all snugly & warm on a cold evening, with my purring cat in my lap, reading an interesting story my friend had sent me, and actually thinking, 'A-A-h, this is the life, all cozy and warm in my soft, cushy Lazy Boy with my feet propped up.

A moment later, I felt that awful sensation of indigestion, when you've been in a hurry, grabbed a bite of sandwich and washed it down with a dash of water. That hurried bite seems to feel like you've swallowed a golf ball going down the esophagus in slow motion and it is most uncomfortable. You realize you shouldn't have gulped it down so fast and needed to chew it more thoroughly and this time drink a glass of water to hasten its progress down to the stomach. This was my initial sensation--the only trouble was that I hadn't taken a bite of anything since about 5:00 p.m.

After it seemed to subside, the next sensation was like little squeezing motions that seemed to be racing up my SPINE (hind-sight, it was probably my aorta spasming), gaining speed as they continued racing up and under my sternum (breast bone, where one presses rhythmically when administering CPR).

This fascinating process continued on into my throat and branched out into both jaws. 'AHA!! NOW I stopped puzzling about what was happening -- we've all read and/or heard about pain in the jaws being one of the signals of an MI [Miocardial Infarction aka Heart Attack] happening, haven't we? I said aloud to myself and the cat, Dear God, I think I'm having a heart attack!

I lowered the footrest dumping the cat from my lap, started to take a step and fell on the floor instead. I thought to myself, If this IS a heart attack, I shouldn't be walking into the next room where the phone is or anywhere else ...on the other hand, if I don't, nobody will know that I need help, and if I wait any longer I may not be able to get up in a moment.

I pulled myself up with the arms of the chair, walked slowly into the next room and dialed the Paramedics... told her I thought I was having a heart attack due to the pressure building under the sternum and radiating into my jaws. I didn't feel hysterical or afraid, just stating the facts. She said she was sending the Paramedics over immediately, asked if the front door was near to me, if so, to unbolt the door then lie down on the floor where they could see me when they came in.

I unlocked the door, laid down on the floor as instructed and lost consciousness. I don't remember the medics coming in, their examination, lifting me onto a gurney or getting me into their ambulance, or hearing the call they made to St. Jude ER on the way. I briefly awaken when we arrived and saw that the Cardiologist was already there in his surgical blues and cap, helping the medics pull my stretcher out of the ambulance. He was bending over me asking questions (probably something like 'Have you taken any medications?') but I couldn't make my mind interpret what he was saying, or form an answer, and nodded off again, not waking up until the Cardiologist and partner had already threaded the teeny angiogram balloon up my femoral artery into the aorta and into my heart where they installed 2 side by side stents to hold open my right coronary artery.

I know it sounds like all my thinking and actions at home must have taken at least 20-30 minutes before calling the Paramedics, but actually it took perhaps 4-5 minutes before the call, and both the fire station and St. Jude are only minutes away from my home. My Cardiologist was already to go to the OR in his scrubs and get going on restarting my heart (which had stopped somewhere between my arrival and the procedure) and installing the stents.

Why have I written all of this to you with so much detail? Because I want all of you who are so important in my life to know what I learned first hand.

1. Be aware that something very different is happening in your body not the usual men's symptoms but inexplicable things happening (until my sternum and jaws got into the act). It is said that many more women than men die of their first (and last) MI because they didn't know they were having one and commonly mistake it as indigestion. They just take some Maalox or other anti-heartburn preparation and go to bed, hoping they'll feel better in the morning when they wake up ... which doesn't happen.
My female friends, your symptoms might not be exactly like mine, so I advise you to call the Paramedics if ANYTHING is unpleasantly happening that you've not felt before. It's better to have a 'false alarm' visitation than to risk your life guessing what it might be!

2. Note that I said 'Call the Paramedics.' And if you can take an Aspirin.
Do NOT try to drive yourself to the ER - you are a hazard to others on the road.
Do NOT have your panicked husband who will be speeding and looking anxiously at what's happening with you instead of the road.
Do NOT call your doctor -- he doesn't know where you live and if it's at night you won't reach him anyway, and if it's daytime, his assistants (or answering service) will tell you to call the Paramedics. He doesn't carry the equipment in his car that you need to be saved! The Paramedics do, principally OXYGEN that you need ASAP. Your Dr. will be notified later.

3. Don't assume it couldn't be a heart attack because you have a normal cholesterol count. Research has discovered that a cholesterol elevated reading is rarely the cause of an MI (unless it's unbelievably high and/or accompanied by high blood pressure). MI's are usually caused by long-term stress and inflammation in the body, which dumps all sorts of deadly hormones into your system to sludge things up in there. Pain in the jaw can wake you from a sound sleep. Let's be careful and be aware. The more we know, the better chance we could survive.

A cardiologist says if everyone who gets this mail sends it to 10 people, you can be sure that we'll save at least one life.
And now I will tell you my own story.
I woke up one night in the middle of the night with intense pain in my chest. It felt as though I was being compressed and I found it difficult to breathe. I also knew that womens risk factors are not always the same as mens, so in spite of being in my early 20s, at a healthy weight, and with a fairly good diet, I genuinely wondered if I was having heart attack. It was one of the scariest things that's ever happened to me. After a little while it dissapated, and I went back to sleep, but the following morning I couldn't get it out of my mind, so I made some calls...I finally concluded that it would be a good idea to go into the doctor's office and be checked out (thankfully our insurance covered this). They did a chest x-ray and an EKG and concluded that I had not had a heart attack. It was all a bit embarrassing after the fact (because, you know, it was probably just bad indigestion...), but I think about the tragic results that occur so often when a woman who IS having a heart attack passes it off as indigestion...and I don't think I overreacted. We need to know what our symptoms are, because if we have a heart attack, it's probably not gonna look like the ones on the movies.


Becky said...

I knew that women had different symptoms than men, but I had no idea about the jaw pain! Thanks for the info.

Becky N. said...

Thank you for passing this on. I was listening to NPR about a week ago when I briefly heard (over the noise of my loud car and the din of my children) a discussion about heart attacks being different for women. But I never followed up to get more information. You're so lovely to hand it to me on a silver platter! :) Very thorough and helpful information. I think I won't have any trouble remembering it!

firefighter girl said...

a note from a paramedic:

I have seen women having heart attacks who thought they just had a 24 hour stomach bug.

nonexertional chest pain or chest pressure, unexplained nausea or vomiting, cold, clammy skin, a feeling of doom, palpitations, shortness of breath--all of these can be signs of a heart attack. (or an anxiety attack, which is another reason many women are misdiagnosed!) myocardial infarct (death of heart muscle) happens when there is an occlusion in the arteries of the heart. This can be related to arterosclerosis (plaque and hardening of the arteries) or a blood clot. That's one reason doctors recommend taking an aspirin every day- you can prevent clot-related MIs because aspirin is a blood thinner (talk to your doctor before beginning any medication).

your best bet is to become informed. learn everything you can about heart health, and talk to your doctor about preventive measures you can take, starting now (for all you youngsters. . .), especially if you have a family history of heart disease. The heart is a truly beautiful and remarkable organ with its own language and electrical conduction system, and it pays to take care of it.

Donna said...

Thank you so much for bringing attention to this important topic!

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