At 35 years old, I wasn’t expecting a heart attack. Afterward, I had a friend tell me, “If I had to make a list of 10 people least likely to have a heart attack, you would have been at the top of the list.” I certainly never thought I’d have two, so quietly that they almost missed it.
I was an active, outwardly healthy mother of three young boys, with a full load of responsibilities. I ran three miles a day, ate a very healthy diet and weighed 110 pounds. I drank only occasionally and never smoked. But in the early morning of July 9, 1995, I knew something was seriously wrong. I felt short of breath, my heart was racing, and I had an aching pain running down the inside of my left arm.
Being a doctor’s daughter, I knew enough to know that there it was serious. I was afraid. I phoned the doctor and spoke to a nurse. After describing my symptoms, I proclaimed, “I know you’re going to think this is crazy, but I feel like it’s my heart.” She agreed and told me to come in that morning. For four days prior to this event, I had experienced an aching, constant pain down the inside of my left arm. At first, I thought I had strained the muscles or damaged a nerve. But after three days, I couldn’t understand why the ache was so constant. Something was very wrong.
Everything I had read about heart attacks involved symptoms of chest pain – an elephant on your chest, or tightness – and I had none of those. But symptoms for women can be quite different from those for men, and I was a textbook example. I had severe pain directly between my shoulder blades, and aching along the inside of my left arm. I also experienced shortness of breath every time I climbed the stairs or exerted myself in any way. Over those few days, I knew I couldn’t possibly run; I was running out of steam.
When the doctor examined me, he reassured me that it was not my heart, and that I most likely was experiencing acid reflux. What a relief! I remember phoning my husband and saying, “Thank God, it’s not my heart!” During that visit, I was given an EEG, which did not show any abnormality. But when I bent over and started to tie my shoes, the shortness began again, along with the spiking pain in my back between my shoulder blades. The doctor believed that, in addition to reflux, I might have pulled a nerve in my back from lifting an 11-month-old boy!
I left with a prescription for Zantac (an anti-acid medication) and a false sense of ease. I never probed or questioned the doctor. I wanted everything to be fine, and I think it was easier to believe what he was saying rather than what my body was shouting. That was my first major mistake.
Women are great at multitasking, but as a result we tend to ignore our own health for the sake of taking care of everyone or everything else around us. Under my care at that time were my three boys, a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old in addition to my toddler; a husband who was traveling back and forth overseas, and two Labradors. I did not have time for a heart attack. Nonetheless, my body was screaming for help. Never ignore what your body tells you. If I’ve learned anything from my experience, it is that your body gives you warning signals. If you feel something is wrong, it usually is.
After four days of taking Zantac, I still had symptoms, and things were getting worse: On the morning of that fourth day, I began to feel ill. I was extremely fatigued; simply walking upstairs made me feel nauseated and short of breath. I couldn’t seem to get enough air. I sat in the bathroom for a short while, sweating and struggling to regain composure. I had my 6-year-old and 11-month-old downstairs, and I couldn’t get to them. If the house had burned, I wouldn’t have been able to move. After 20 minutes I began to feel better; the pain eased and the breath came back. It was then that the fear set in. I knew that I wasn’t crazy and that something was very wrong. I phoned the doctor and spoke to him. He then told me that I was having muscle spasms and ordered a muscle relaxant. Reluctantly, and still not trusting my gut, I went and filled the prescription.
That afternoon, we had planned to put our beloved yellow Labrador, Nicky, to sleep. He had terminal cancer and was at the end of a long, beautiful life. We drove him to our vet and said our goodbyes. He truly was our first child, so letting go was extremely difficult and took a toll on the entire household. My husband and I cried together as we eased his pain, and he slipped off into a permanent slumber. It was heart-wrenching.
That night, after dinner, a glass of wine and putting the kids to bed, I settled wearily into bed. Soon thereafter, I experienced labored breathing, an incredible sharp pain directly between my shoulder blades, and a feeling as though a sharp blade was slicing through my chest. My arms tingled all the way down to the inside of my fingertips. At this point the pain was, without a doubt, a 10. Believe me, at a 10, it is extremely difficult to speak. You become so focused on trying to make it through each breath, that speaking distracts you from performing the necessary function in order to survive. I was definitely in survival mode and shouting in my mind, “I need help now.”
My husband was at a loss. Blindly trusting the doctor’s prognosis, he suggested a hot shower or ice on my back. I managed a weak “I need help now.” He phoned the doctor. It was midnight. I was now sweating profusely and soon began vomiting. The doctor told him, with some exasperation, that I had pulled a muscle or nerve in my back, and it was nothing to worry about, but if I needed reassurance he should bring me to the hospital. The doctor said that he would call ahead and have the hospital staff administer a muscle relaxant. By the grace of God, I made it to the emergency room.
Our dear friend, Francie, who lived down the street, had to come over to stay with our kids while Steve rushed me to the emergency room. Francie is a strong woman who couldn’t have helped more. She knew immediately that I was in trouble and later told me that she felt me just floating away. She placed her face directly in front of mine (which at the time, felt like a giant balloon) and told me to hang on and fight the urge to give into the pain. It is something I will never forget. Her tenderness and strength encouraged me to continue the struggle and to not let up. I held fast to the will to live. At that moment, it would have been much easier to let go. On the lighter side, my dear husband was at a complete loss, and actually asked me if I wanted to change before going to the hospital and, if so, which shoes would I like to wear? I love him for thinking of my feet at that pivotal moment. Today, it still makes me laugh!
The drive to the hospital is a blur. I just remember that I was completely focused on the digital clock, guiding me through each breath as I struggled to stay alive. Just before arriving to the emergency room, the pain began to subside. My breath became more comfortable, and now I was utterly exhausted. We were met at the emergency doors by a kind, elderly gentleman who was there to wheel me inside. They began the admittance with a series of ridiculous questions, and I just looked at them helplessly. “Please, I need help now” was all I could manage. He took a good look at me and we left, the admittance desk attendee wheeling me through the doors. To this day, I am grateful.
Unfortunately, once behind those doors, I became the silent, ignored patient. Time passed and eventually a nurse came in to take my blood pressure. I was shaking uncontrollably, which I now believe was a sign that my body was going into shock, and the nurse shouted, “Look, you must stop shaking, I can’t get your blood pressure!” Clearly, she believed nothing was seriously wrong, and was annoyed by this stressed housewife who was complaining of severe back pain and a shortness of breath. We ran through all the symptoms I had experienced – including the vomiting, sweating, severe pain, and ringing all the way down both my arms and into my fingers – and she left.
More time passed, and nurses continued to walk by with little interest in my condition. I had made several attempts for someone to get my husband, but was each time ignored. Eventually, the Director of the Emergency Room came in – in a stroke of luck, he just happened to be in the hospital that early morning – and I went through the same litany of symptoms, articulating each very carefully. He patted my leg and declared, “Honey, you have classic, textbook symptoms of a muscle spasm from lifting an 11-month-old.” After he administered Valium, I waited once again. I went to go to the bathroom and things began all over again. My breath was labored and the pain between my shoulder blades became increasingly severe. The Director returned 30 minutes later, ready to send me home.
“No, something is seriously wrong,” I whimpered. “I’m not leaving.” We went through the symptoms once again, stressing that I had pain in my back between my shoulder blades and coming through my chest. Finally he asked if I had had an EEG. I will never forget him saying, “I’m sure everything is fine, but we’ll do one before we send you home. Just to be on the safe side.”
The technician hooked me up, turned on the machine, and then his eyes popped. He ran from the room and the next thing I remember was that I became triage! Nurses, Doctors, an IV and apologies. It was really something! A cardiologist arrived and gave Steve and I the dreaded news: two heart attacks in the last 24 hours.
After blood tests, X-Rays and more apologies, I was shipped off to the Cardiac Care Unit. It was the early hours of Friday, July 13, so I waited until Monday for an angiogram. Over the weekend, under the supervision of a skeleton staff of residents, they attempted to reduce my levels of heparin. Every time it reached a certain level, the symptoms returned. The resident actually had the nerve to tell me that my symptoms were psychosomatic from anxiety! After three days of lackluster treatment, the procedure showed a 90% blockage of my left anterior and the cardiologist went into alarm mode. He explained my condition to my husband, stating that he had the right to transfer me to any hospital he chose. The cardiologist stressed that time was of the essence and strongly recommended an immediate transfer to Yale, the closest major cardiac center. He believed I would need open-heart surgery.
It was decided that Yale would be my next destination. I was shuttled back to CCU, where nurses insisted on showing me films of open-heart surgery! Some patients may want to know everything before they go into surgery, but in my fragile, emotional state, trying to grasp that I had suffered a heart attack at the age of 35 was difficult enough.
Off we went to Yale, with films, charts and a heavy heart. Needless to say, my husband was terrified.
I have to thank and commend all the nurses and doctors at Yale. I couldn’t have received more care and concern. The head of the department and his team were wonderfully informative and patient, and the treatment was a night and day difference from what I had experienced previously. I went in the next morning for another angiogram. I had a massive clot that had dissolved by 50% overnight! If I didn’t believe in guardian angels then, I do now. The doctors told me that if they hadn’t seen the films from the day before, they wouldn’t have believed it. The clot was literally breaking up as I lay on the table. Nothing to do, but back out and heal! I was a very fortunate gal, and am a walking miracle today!
After five days in step-down, I was released. The physical healing took weeks, but at rehab three weeks later, I was able to run on the treadmill. It was a personal triumph that produced tears of joy from my rehab therapists and myself. The road to recovery had begun. At 35, having survived two heart attacks, I wanted to resume a normal life. I wanted to push it as far away from me as I could. My desire to become the strong, self-sufficient wife and reliable mother of three consumed my focus. There was no mourning for me, no facing fears of death; I was stubborn and determined to put my family back together. All of that would come years later when my body’s innate ability to heal would surface.
For the next 12 years I saw a local cardiologist once a year and had a nuclear stress test and blood work. My cardiologist assured me that there was no concrete explanation for my myocardial infarction (MI), other than a vague connection to the birth control pill and a pre-existing condition of rhenoids, a circulatory disorder.
Two years ago, I came to see Dr. Pat Allen for premenopausal issues. She took charge of my health and made an appointment for me to see one of the very best cardiologist/internists in New York City, Dr. Timothy Dutta. Given my own and my family’s history, he refused to accept that my hear attack had been a random event. Even being on birth control didn’t explain my history of my father dying at 52. He suspected a hereditary blood disorder and, with a simple blood test, determined that I had a high level of lipoprotein-A, which proved a major player in my event.
Today, I am a healthy, happy beautiful 50 year- old, who has seen those little ones grow big! I look back on my experience those many years ago as a blessing, of sorts, that ultimately showed me how to live well, find my inner peace and take charge of my life. I listen to my body, and research and ask questions about my health options. I am no longer afraid to own my decisions.
Women need to realize that you don’t need to be 70 in order to experience a heart attack. The pain doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in the chest; condescending voices of impatient doctors should never be tolerated; and your husband shouldn’t worry about shoes and a change of clothes! It is a silent killer that slips stealthily into your heart.
Any woman with a family history of heart disease needs to see a good cardiologist and have a full workup. I would suggest blood work, stress tests and a calcium scan. We need to take charge of our bodies and our health. Prior to my MI, I did everything right. I ate a low fat, healthy diet, I exercised every day, and I never smoked or drank in excess. I was literally the “picture” of health, but still it came. It has taken a lot of time and soul-searching for me to live without fear, but I have arrived. Today I see my cardiologist every six months, do heavy cardio five or six times a week, eat a healthy diet — but enjoy life as well. After all, we all need to enjoy our time here! (Bookmark this Web site, from the National Coalition on Women and Heart Disease. You’ll find more information and support there.)
Remember to address stress, live life fully, love often, laugh a lot, feed your body well, and see a doctor who listens carefully and discusses well. Be your own advocate and listen to your body. After all, it’s the only vehicle we have for this life.
Katharine B. Johnson lives in Connecticut, where she lives with Steve and her three sons. Having just delivered her youngest to boarding school, she calls herself “partially retired” after 25 years of working full time. She’s trying to decide her next step, in sharing the essential facts about women and heart disease.