The signs can be confusing. Here’s what two survivors wish they would have known.
Just like fingerprints and snowflakes, no two hearts are alike. Neither are any two heart attacks.
We asked a couple of heart attack survivors about their experiences and were amazed by their wildly different stories. One thing they both agreed on? Paying attention to what our bodies are telling us is very important when it comes to heart attacks.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart muscle becomes blocked, restricting oxygen. Depending on how long blood supply is cut off for, heart damage can occur, from mild to severe, and can sometimes be fatal.
“Don’t ignore subtle signs”
After a successful career as a legal assistant, Marjorie Sanders retired in 2001. The 73-year-old grandmother of four walks everywhere and doesn’t smoke. Although she’d developed slightly high blood pressure, she considered herself to be the picture of health until the fall of 2018.
Sanders rolled over in bed one night and noticed “a bit of a pop” on the left side of her chest. It was over in a flash. She had no pain, and by morning she didn’t give it another thought. A few weeks later, she started feeling unwell in a subtle way: She was unusually tired on her regular walks, but upon resting at home she would feel better.
Then her teeth and jaw started to hurt. A Google search led her to believe it was probably reflux, so she carried on with acetaminophen. The discomfort persisted. She went to her doctor, who noticed nothing wrong.
That aching jaw should have been a red flag: It’s a telltale sign of a heart attack in women. About a week later, still taking pain relievers, Sanders went to bed, only to experience strange sensations in her chest.
“There was never any pain,” Sanders recalls. “It was like a rumble or spasms. I would sit up and it would go away. Lying down seemed to make it worse. It wasn’t painful, but it was something you couldn’t ignore or put up with. I said to my husband, ‘I think we should go to the hospital.’”
There, she learned she was having a heart attack. An ultrasound the next day showed that one of her arteries was 95 percent blocked. “I couldn’t believe it,” Sanders says. “We were stunned. On TV, you see people clenching their chest. My arms weren’t sore, and I had no nausea or vomiting. I don’t have any history of it in my family.”
Surgeons placed a stent in her heart, and Sanders recovered fully. She takes blood pressure medication, checks in with her cardiologist regularly, and is back to feeling great.
Looking back on her experience now, Sanders says it’s important to deal with high blood pressure, especially understanding possible reasons behind it. She also encourages women to pay attention to anything that just doesn’t feel right. Jaw pain is an often-overlooked symptom in females.
“My symptoms were vague; I felt just not well,” she says. “It wasn’t grand and dramatic like you see on TV. Don’t ignore subtle signs.”
Many women who experience a heart attack don’t get a diagnosis or explanation of the cause even when they go to the hospital, says cardiologist Dr. Tara Sedlak. This is called a “silent heart attack.”“This is because women are more likely to experience heart attacks from less well-understood conditions such as vasospasm, and these do not show up on a standard angiogram,” Sedlak says. (A vasospasm is a sudden narrowing of an artery caused by muscles in the artery wall abruptly contracting and not stopping.) “These undiagnosed patients are at risk for future events and often have high levels of anxiety over not receiving a diagnosis for this heart condition.”
“Stress can affect anybody”
In May 2017, Jon McLellan ran a half marathon. A month later, at age 41, he had a heart attack.
McLellan recalls the weekend it happened. His daughter was not yet two years old, and his business—a craft distillery—wasn’t much older.
After pulling an all-nighter to get ready to sell products at a nearby farmers’ market, the self-employed husband and dad spent the day working, then returned home and went straight to a family gathering. Later that evening, he was loading heavy items into his car when he felt a wave of nausea.
“I was overheating, just instantly sweating,” McLellan says. “I was kind of dizzy and remember thinking, ‘I don’t feel so good.’ The entire night, it felt like somebody had been sitting on my chest.”
He went to his doctor in the morning. She sent him straight to hospital. Tests revealed a heart attack but no obvious physiological cause. Doctors surmised that McLellan’s heart attack was stress induced.
“It was a good slap in the face,” McLellan says.
McLellan, who now takes a daily aspirin (as a blood thinner), is keeping up with regular physical activity and healthy eating. Since his heart scare, he sees things in a different light. His health and his family are the most important things in his life, and he doesn’t let work get to him. He’s training a replacement so that he can have more time away from the business.
“I’d rather be poor and happy than wealthy and dead,” he says. “Don’t think you’re ever too young or too invincible to have a heart attack. Stress can affect anybody.”
Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack for both men and women. Here are some other signs people may experience.
- sore jaw
- back pain
- shortness of breath
- sensation of squeezing, pressure, heaviness, fullness, or burning in the chest
- pain or discomfort in the upper body, including arms, left shoulder, and stomach
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- shortness of breath
- cold sweat
Cardiologist Dr. Tara Sedlak says it’s important not to dismiss any signs.
“I tell people that when they have significant uncharacteristic pain lasting for more than 15 to 20 minutes in locations that could be associated with a heart attack, or severe breathing problems, or fainting with no warning, it’s always safer to get checked out than to stay at home and miss a possible heart attack,” she says.
For men and women, heart attack risk factors are habits or conditions that increase your chance of getting heart disease. These include smoking, excessive use of alcohol , unhealthy weight, high blood pressure, diabetes, stress, and lack of exercise. Age and family history can also contribute to greater chances of a heart attack.
Women have other unique factors. Menopause, hormone replacement therapy, and pre-eclampsia during pregnancy all affect women’s hearts.