By Holly Radabaugh
In this blog post, guest blogger Holly Radabaugh shares the story of how her mother survived a heart attack against all odds and emphasizes the importance of recognizing the more subtle signs of a heart attack that many women experience.
Nine years ago, my mother had a heart attack and subsequently, open heart surgery. She was the typical case you hear about when it comes to women and heart disease. The warning signs are subtle, easily dismissed and unrecognizable to those around them.
I first learned she was having a difficult time breathing on our way home from a local festival. We had to walk up a very steep and long hill to get to the car. She had to pause on the way to catch her breath and rest a moment. My Mom was a 40-year smoker with asthma. My first concern was for her lungs and not her heart. I encouraged her to make an appointment even though my worst fear would be that they discovered she had lung cancer. She instinctively knew it was her heart even though she never voiced that concern out loud.
My Mom’s father had died of a massive heart attack at the age of 38. Heart disease was certainly on the radar but, as most women, my mother didn’t look like a potential heart attack victim. She was young (55), at a healthy weight, active and, by most standards, in decent health. However, she had been a smoker on and off for the past 40 years, had slightly elevated cholesterol levels and a family history of heart disease.
Her doctor’s immediate concern was for her heart and not her lungs, but the EKG showed no irregularities and she was scheduled for a stress test. But she didn’t make it to the scheduled test. A few days before her appointment, she was rushed to the emergency department after having subtle heart attack symptoms while at work. Fortunately, one of her colleagues gave her two aspirin before the ambulance showed up. The doctors later praised this small action as potentially lifesaving.
Upon arrival, the hospital swarmed into action and started all of the tests. Because her blood work showed only slightly elevated enzymes, they were calling it a “heart episode” instead of a heart attack. They scheduled her for a heart catheterization to insert some stents the next morning.
The entire next morning felt so routine while the doctors explained the procedure and how simple it was, easing our concerns. As a result, I did not feel prepared for what came next. They wheeled her out of the cath lab and the doctor said, “I’m sorry but I can’t fix her.” It turned out that she required heart bypass surgery because each of her arties were clogged at least 80% and most of them where high 90s to 100%. Stents would not fix this problem. She would need immediate open-heart surgery. According to her cardiologist, it defied all medical odds that she did not have a massive heart attack and was still alive.
Her bypass surgery was scheduled for the following morning. I met with her heart surgeon the afternoon before the surgery. He explained that while the surgery was extreme it was also routine and that not having the surgery was not an option. He also took the time to talk to me about my risk factors for heart disease. My Mother’s heart attack meant that my odds of having heart disease were increased by almost 70%. He cautioned me on taking care of myself and living the best lifestyle for prevention of heart disease — avoiding cigarettes, exercising on a regular basis, eating a healthy diet and having regular checkups and blood work.
Mom’s bypass surgery was successful. The recovery time was intense both physically and mentally for all those involved. Thankfully, she made a full recovery and is smoke free for more than nine years now. I am so blessed and beyond grateful that my Mom is still with me. If she hadn’t recognized her subtle symptoms for what they were, she might not be here today.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. It’s imperative we are educated on the signs and symptoms. While women can experience chest pain or discomfort like men, women are more likely to experience other, less recognizable, symptoms of a heart attack, including shortness of breath, jaw or back pain, nausea or vomiting and other “flu”-like symptoms.
If you or a loved one experience any of these less common symptoms or any of the more well-known ones like chest pain, arm pain, cold sweats or lightheadedness, call 911 and, if possible, take an aspirin. Not dismissing symptoms and acting fast could very well save a life.
For more information about women’s heart health, please visit the American Health Association’s Go Red for Women Web site and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, Women and Heart Disease Prevention.
Holly Radabaugh is a Senior Project Manager at HealthiVibe, LLC. Holly enjoys spending time hiking, kayaking and watching superhero movies with her husband and two children. She firmly believes that you should tell those you care about that you love them every chance you get. She is also a firm believer that coffee drinking counts as a hobby.
Thank you, Holly, for sharing your compelling story with our readers.
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