A Heart Attack Scare Gets Very Personal

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - November 10, 2010
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A while back I wrote a column about women and heart disease. My point was that women should see a doctor if they have any symptoms. And since women are prone to having atypical symptoms, this can be tricky.

Don Weismann of the Hawaii chapter of the American Heart Association said it’s important for everyone to know that the warning symptoms for women are different than they are for men. Men who have heart attacks are likely to experience severe chest pain or a feeling of a heavy weight on their heart.

Women’s symptoms are different. Their blood vessels are smaller; pain is more diffuse - not centered on the heart. Or they could feel lightheaded, weak, breathless, nauseous or fatigued.

A couple of weeks ago I had what felt like an anxiety attack: heart squeezing, weight on chest, shortness of breath, lightheaded. It was a bit scary. A day later I had what can only be described as a racing heartbeat. Fast and fluttery. I made a mental note and then shoved it to the back of my mind. I had a few things going on that had me keyed up and excited, so I chalked the symptoms up to stress.


About a week and a half later, I developed a pain in my right shoulder that spread to my neck. I took aspirin, but it wasn’t relieving the pain.

OK. I vaguely remembered that, taken all together, these could be signs of something potentially serious, so I Googled. Sure enough, they were warning signs of a possible heart attack. I talked to my husband - quietly and calmly so as not to alarm our son - and we decided to go to Queen’s.

I felt silly. But doctors I have interviewed in the past all said the same thing: Get it checked. Do not hesitate. If you wait too long, you could do permanent damage to your heart. So I pushed aside my reluctance and went.

The ER staff at Queen’s is great. They are proficient, efficient and absolutely reassuring. They asked many questions, reacted speedily when I explained why I was there and took no chances. EKG, blood tests to check for enzymes, heart monitors and lots more questions.

I was there for about three hours and, well, it turns out I was fine. No heart attack. It seems I somehow strained my neck and that caused the pain. I was happy, but at first embarrassed.

But here’s the thing: Each person I came in contact with at the hospital told me the same thing. It is better to be safe than sorry. Each person, from the admitting person to the nurses to the doctor and even the X-ray technician emphasized the importance of coming in rather than ignoring symptoms. Don’t feel silly, they all told me. Instead, they congratulated me for doing the right thing.

The ER doctor advised me to call my regular doctor for an appointment because I did have some puzzling symptoms that should be checked. But I was OK to go home.

I debated telling you about this because, well, nothing happened. But then I thought again. Embarrassment is both unnecessary and damaging in a case like this. Doctors tell us over and over that there is always the chance it will be a false alarm - but it’s OK! There is also the very real possibility you are experiencing a heart attack - and they would rather send you home healthy and maybe a little embarrassed than irreparably damaged or even dead. This is your life.


The clincher for me, and why I decided to go, was my son. I would hate to have him lose his mom because she stupidly did not heed her own advice.

According to the National Institutes of Health, some of the major symptoms women noticed prior to a heart attack included:

* Unusual fatigue: 70 percent
* Sleep disturbance: 48 percent
* Shortness of breath: 42 percent
* Indigestion: 39 percent
* Anxiety: 35 percent

Major symptoms during the heart attack include:

* Shortness of breath: 58 percent
* Weakness: 55 percent
* Unusual fatigue: 43 percent
* Cold sweat: 39 percent
* Dizziness: 39 percent

So, ladies, if you suspect something is wrong, don’t hesitate. Get to a hospital. Do not gamble with your life.

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