As you probably know, February is Heart Month – all month long there have been events & promotions to turn everyone’s attention toward heart health. Since this is a leap year, today is like a Bonus Day – so I thought I’d share my story. I feel like the rest of my life is Bonus Days, because I would not be here now if I hadn’t been paying attention.
You’d know if you were having a heart attack. I mean, how could you NOT know, right?
Quite easily, as it turns out. Especially if you’re female: Heart attack symptoms in women can be quite different from those in men.
I learned this first-hand on Friday May 20, 2011.
On Thursday, I’d mowed my small lawn, stopping halfway through to go inside and “catch my breath,” when I felt I couldn’t take another step. I woke up in my recliner two hours later, still worn out, but finished the mowing anyway. My arms felt extremely weak, but so did the rest of me, so it didn’t seem that odd.
Friday night I went to bed early, hoping to finally get some rest. After a few hours of tossing and turning, completely exhausted, but feeling too uncomfortable to sleep, I resigned myself to another sleepless night and got up. I’d been like that for about a week – able to catch only short naps, sometimes at night, sometimes during the day, but waking up feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all.
I attributed my inability to get comfortable in bed to indigestion, which I blamed on the spaghetti dinner fundraiser I’d attended earlier. This is kind of gross, but I had terrible gas pains in the upper abdominal/lower chest area. I’d experienced gas like this many times, but not for years, since changing the way I ate most of the time. I was burping like crazy, but it wasn’t helping. I had no antacids or anti-gas medicine in the house, so I mixed a half-teaspoon of baking soda in water – the concoction my grandparents had used as an antacid – but it provided no relief.
Utterly exhausted and living alone at the time, I decided my only choice was to drive to the store to get gas medicine, so I could (hopefully) get some sleep.
At 1:30 in the morning. Obviously, I was not thinking clearly.
In the store, I leaned heavily on the shopping cart. Everything felt unreal – as if I was watching someone else do these things. I took a dose of the gas medicine as soon as I found it, then went to pay for it and drove home. It didn’t get better. Instead, I started getting a slight tightness in my chest. No pain, other than what I’d had before from gas pain.
Something in my head said, “heart attack?” but I dismissed it. “This can’t be a heart attack. It doesn’t hurt enough. Doesn’t a heart attack feel worse than childbirth without painkillers? This is just frustrating and annoying – not something that can kill me.”
Fortunately, my brain nagged me and the internet exists. I googled heart attack symptoms and read some, which gave me a notion that heart attacks look different in women. So I searched on heart attack women and found some scary news.
It’s common for women NOT to have the “typical” chest pain associated with a heart attack, and to have symptoms not generally experienced by men during a cardiac event – making it harder to recognize what’s happening. Consequently, women wait longer to get medical attention, and are more likely to die from a heart attack.
Don’t feel stupid if you didn’t know this – it’s pretty new information. Lots of doctors and hospitals still don’t realize that heart attacks can look very different in women. How can that be? In the past, heart studies were primarily done on men, and it was assumed that the findings carried over to women. But women are not just smaller versions of men with different naughty bits. Our chemical makeup and internal anatomy affect how heart disease develops, how accurate standard diagnostic tests are on us, and how we respond to medications. It’s relatively recent that studies have been conducted on women in this area.
Heart attack symptoms that women commonly have include:
- Unusual fatigue – much more than what is typical for you
- Prolonged sleep disturbances (not just a couple restless nights)
- Shortness of breath
- Lower chest discomfort
- Upper abdominal pressure/discomfort that can feel like indigestion
- Back pain
- Perspiration (when you really shouldn’t be)
- Jaw pain
Actually, the unusual fatigue and prolonged sleep disturbances may be an early warning sign – some women report having these symptoms as much as a month before their cardiac event. (I’d had them for a couple weeks, and it kept getting worse.)
As you can see, none of these, taken separately, are unique and distinct signs that would make you immediately think, “I’M HAVING A HEART ATTACK,” but if you have some of these symptoms, it’s time to call 9-1-1.
I looked at the symptoms I found and realized that I had most of the symptoms and YES, IT’S PROBABLY A HEART ATTACK. So, at about 3:30 in the morning, I made the call. The paramedics were there in less than 10 minutes, hooking up the portable EKG. I was rushed directly to a hospital in the next county, because they had a cardiac specialty unit. Balloon angioplasty was performed to install a stent in a coronary artery that was completely blocked.
If I had just dismissed the symptoms and not called for help when I did, I would have been dead before the sun came up Saturday morning.
The bottom line is this:
PAY ATTENTION to your body. Know what is normal for you so you can recognize when something is off. If you start to wonder whether you’re having a heart attack, don’t wait until your heart stops to find out if you were right. Your life may depend on it.
For a slightly humorous take on this serious subject, enjoy this video by Elizabeth Banks.