Alicia Fogarty, a Carolinas HealthCare System dietitian who spends her life teaching people about healthy eating, was giving a talk at a local running symposium in November when she began to feel an intense ache in her left arm.
By the time she finished, she felt so exhausted that she sat down to answer questions. She thought she was coming down with the flu, or her blood sugar had dropped. “I just don’t feel well,” she told her husband when she called him on her way home.
It crossed Fogarty’s mind that she could be having a heart attack, but she brushed it off. “I’m 42. I’m healthy. I can’t be having a heart attack,” she thought. She resisted her husband’s suggestion to go directly to an urgent care center.
By the time she got home, she was feeling the same heavy ache in her jaw. Before she went to bed, she searched the Internet for the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. But she continued to think, “There’s no way.”
An hour later, when she woke up, her right arm had also begun to ache, and she felt pain in her chest, as if someone had punched her.
That’s when her husband called 911.
At Carolinas HealthCare System Pineville, tests showed Fogarty had elevated levels of troponin, proteins released when the heart muscle has been damaged. “Essentially that means I had a heart attack,” she said.
Eventually, she was diagnosed with spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a rare type of heart attack that affects mostly women. Her left anterior descending artery – also known as LAD, or the widow maker – had split, causing a blockage. She underwent balloon angioplasty to insert a stent to hold the artery together.
Since then, she’s been taking medicines – including aspirin, a beta blocker, a statin and a blood thinner – to protect her heart. She also went through three months of cardiac rehabilitation, where specialists monitored her exercise, her heart rate and rhythm, her blood pressure and changes in her weight.
During February, which is American Heart Month, Fogarty wanted to share her experience and warn people that the symptoms of heart attack for women can be very different from those for men.
“It was not your standard movie-style heart attack,” she said. “No clutching the chest.… My pain started in my left arm, and it was gradual.”
Even though Fogarty knew the symptoms before she experienced them, she kept ignoring them because she didn’t “fit the profile.” She has no family history of heart attacks, she exercises regularly and has never smoked, her weight and cholesterol levels were normal, and she follows the healthy diet she prescribes for others.
In meeting other heart attack victims, she has learned that many women ignore their symptoms, and sometimes that leads to more serious consequences. Fogarty’s message is: Know the symptoms, pay attention, and don’t hesitate to call 911.
Heart attack symptoms in women
▪ Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
▪ Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
▪ Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.
▪ Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
▪ As with men, the most common symptom in women is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Source: American Heart Association, www.heart.org.