Heart attack was just about the last thing on 40-year-old Melissa’s mind. The active mother of two sons had just seen her doctor for a complete physical a few months earlier and had no symptoms that would indicate heart disease.
But following a bout with bronchitis, Melissa started feeling pressure in her chest.
“I was in so much pain,” she said. “It felt like the pressure of something heavy lying on my chest and a pulled muscle at the same time. It was like getting kicked in the chest.” She saw her doctor, who thought she might have pulled a muscle from coughing. Chest x-rays didn't reveal a problem, so she went home and placed hot water bottles on her chest to ease the pain.
“Even having the water bottle on my chest hurt, but at first the heat seemed to soothe the pain,” she recalled. “After a while, the pain was so intense I was in tears.”
After six days of off-and-on pain, Melissa went to her clinic’s urgent care center, where doctors performed an EKG– a test that records electrical activity of the heart. Doctors noticed one area on the test that seemed suspicious.
“They told me I would need to go to the emergency room. I could be having a heart attack,” she said. “I thought, ‘No way could I be having a heart attack.’ I always assumed a heart attack would feel like a stabbing chest pain that would continue until treatment. That wasn’t like my symptoms at all.”
Although Melissa had a family history of heart disease – both her grandfather and a cousin had had heart attacks – she had no other symptoms previously.
At the emergency room of Frederick Memorial Hospital (Frederick, Maryland), doctors gave Melissa nitroglycerin, a medication that dilates the blood vessels. She was then taken to the cath lab, where Dr. Mark Turco, an interventional cardiologist at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland, performed an angiogram, a procedure to check for blockages in the arteries. During the angiogram, Dr. Turco found a blood clot that was blocking the flow of blood to Melissa’s heart. He performed an angioplasty, a procedure to open up the blockage, and placed a stent to keep the blockage open.
“The whole procedure took less than an hour,” said Melissa. “I had to lie still, but overall I was relaxed and comfortable. Before I knew it, my chest pain was completely gone. I had to spend two nights in the hospital before returning home.”
Today, Melissa is feeling better and has more energy than she has had in a long time. Like many women, she thought a heart attack couldn’t happen to her, especially at age 40. She now takes the opportunity to share her story with other women, so they know the warning signs.
“I’m active in my sons’ local football league and know so many women my age in the community. Every chance I get, I tell my story. It’s easy to think you could never have a heart attack. If it happened to me, it could happen to anyone,” she said.
Following her angioplasty, Melissa felt back to normal within days. On the way home from the hospital, she was able to stop at her son’s homecoming game – and see his team score the final touchdown.
“I can’t describe how grateful I am,” she said. “Women need to know the warning signs and risk factors. We have to know heart disease happens to women, too, and we may not experience the classic symptoms you see in the movies or on TV.”
Dr. Turco agrees. “The warning signs of heart attack in women may be different from those men experience,” he said. “Both men and women often experience chest pain and shortness of breath, but women are more likely to experience nausea, dizziness, and anxiety. Trust your instincts. If you have these symptoms, call 911 right away
To learn more about the various signals your body sends before a heart attack here.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men. This startling fact applies to women across race and ethnicity, yet many people believe heart disease is a man’s disease. There is more information about women and cardiovascular disease here.