Female Heart Attacks Are Different: A Nurse’s Heart Attack Experience

The fol­low­ing was post­ed to a mail­ing list I’m on. Of course, it was sur­round­ed with the usu­al “send it to every­body you know!” admo­ni­tions. I don’t do that, and I usu­al­ly delete any­thing so marked. But I did find the infor­ma­tion use­ful, so (after edit­ing a bit, I admit), I am repost­ing it. I made no mate­r­i­al changes, and take no cred­it for the infor­ma­tion there­in. I’d be hap­py to give cred­it to the orig­i­nal author if I can find any cred­itable attribution.

I did, of course, check Snopes, where I found that this thing has been cir­cu­lat­ing since 2007 and orig­i­nal­ly con­tained more specifics about the sender, such as the date of the heart attack and her job title. The one I received claimed that the author was an emer­gency room nurse, which isn’t, appar­ent­ly, the case (or if it is, was­n’t the claim in ear­li­er ver­sions of the mes­sage). Still, there was no author giv­en, and the infor­ma­tion I’m repeat­ing here was ver­i­fied as cred­i­ble. It does, how­ev­er, point out that heart attacks aren’t real­ly gen­der-spe­cif­ic. While women are a lit­tle more like­ly than men to have “atyp­i­cal” heart attack symp­toms, peo­ple of any gen­der can have any kind of symptoms.

Did you know that women rarely have the same dra­mat­ic symp­toms that men have when expe­ri­enc­ing a heart attack (Myocar­dial Infarction—MI)? …you know, the sud­den stab­bing pain in the chest, pain on the left arm, the cold sweat, grab­bing the chest, and drop­ping to the floor. 

I had a heart attack at about 10:30 p.m. with NO pri­or exer­tion and NO pri­or emo­tion­al trau­ma that one would sus­pect might’ve brought it on.

I was sit­ting all snug­ly and warm on a cold evening, purring cat on my lap, read­ing an inter­est­ing sto­ry, and actu­al­ly think­ing, A‑A-h, this is the life. I was all cozy and warm in my soft, cushy Lazy Boy with my feet propped up.

A moment lat­er, I felt that awful sen­sa­tion of indi­ges­tion, when you’ve been in a hur­ry, grabbed a bite of sand­wich, and washed it down with a dash of water, then that hur­ried bite feels like you’ve swal­lowed a golf ball oh-so-slow­ly going down the esophagus—most uncom­fort­able! You real­ize you should­n’t have gulped it down so fast and need­ed to chew it more thor­ough­ly and this time drink a glass of water to has­ten its progress down to the stom­ach. This was my ini­tial sensation—the only trou­ble was that I had­n’t tak­en a bite of any­thing since about 5 p.m.

After it seemed to sub­side, the next sen­sa­tion was like lit­tle squeez­ing motions that seemed to be rac­ing up my spine (hind­sight: it was prob­a­bly my aor­ta spas­ming), gain­ing speed as they con­tin­ued rac­ing up and under my ster­num (breast bone).

Then they con­tin­ued into my throat and branched out into both jaws. Aha! Now I stopped puz­zling out what was happening—we’ve all read and/or heard about pain in the jaws being one of the sig­nals of an MI. I said aloud to my cat, “Dear God, I think I’m hav­ing a heart attack!”

I low­ered the footrest, start­ed to take a step, and fell on the floor instead. I thought to myself, “If this is a heart attack, I should­n’t be walk­ing into the next room where the phone is—on the oth­er hand, if I don’t, nobody will know I need help, and if I wait I may not be able to get up at all.”

I pulled myself up with the arms of the chair, walked slow­ly into the next room, and dialed 911. I told the oper­a­tor I thought I was hav­ing a heart attack due to the pres­sure build­ing under my ster­num and radi­at­ing into my jaws. I was­n’t hys­ter­i­cal or afraid, just stat­ed the facts calm­ly. She said she will send the para­medics over imme­di­ate­ly, but to unbolt the door and lie down on the floor where they could see me when they came in.

I did as instruct­ed and lost con­scious­ness. I don’t remem­ber the medics com­ing in, exam­in­ing me, lift­ing me onto a gur­ney, get­ting me into the ambu­lance, or hear­ing their call to St. Jude’s emer­gency room. I briefly awak­ened when we arrived and saw the car­di­ol­o­gist help­ing the medics pull my stretch­er out of the ambu­lance and ask me ques­tions, but I could­n’t make my mind inter­pret what he was say­ing or form an answer. I nod­ded off again and did­n’t wake up until the car­di­ol­o­gist and his part­ner had already thread­ed the angiogram bal­loon up into my heart where they installed stents to hold my right coro­nary artery open.

My think­ing and actions at home before call­ing 911 took about 4–5 min­utes, both the fire sta­tion and St. Jude are only min­utes away from my home, and my car­di­ol­o­gist was already on his way.

Why so much detail? Because I want all of you to know what I learned firsthand:

  1. Be aware when some­thing very dif­fer­ent is hap­pen­ing in your body—not the usu­al men’s symptoms—but things I could­n’t explain until my ster­num and jaws got into the act. Many more women than men die of their first (and last) MI because they did­n’t know they were hav­ing one. They com­mon­ly mis­take it as indi­ges­tion, take Maalox or oth­er anti-heart­burn prepa­ra­tion and go to bed, hop­ing they’ll feel bet­ter in the morn­ing when they wake up … which does­n’t hap­pen. Your symp­toms might not be exact­ly like mine, so I advise you to call 911 if any­thing unpleas­ant is hap­pen­ing that you’ve not felt before. It is bet­ter to have a “false alarm” than to risk your life guess­ing what it might be!
  2. Note that I said Call 911. Time is of the essence! 
    • Do not try to dri­ve your­self to the ER—you are a haz­ard to oth­ers on the road.
    • Do not have your pan­icked fam­i­ly speed­ing who—instead of focus­ing on the the road—are look­ing anx­ious­ly at what’s hap­pen­ing with you.
    • Do not call your doctor—he does­n’t know where you live and if it’s at night you won’t reach him any­way; and if it’s day­time, his assis­tants (or answer­ing ser­vice) will tell you to call 911. He does­n’t car­ry equip­ment in his car that you need to be saved! Para­medics do, prin­ci­pal­ly oxy­gen that you need ASAP. Your doc­tor will be noti­fied later.
  3. After you call 911, take an aspirin if you can.
  4. Don’t assume it could­n’t be a heart attack because you have a nor­mal cho­les­terol count and have had no pre­vi­ous symp­toms. Research shows that ele­vat­ed cho­les­terol is rarely the cause of an MI (unless it’s unbe­liev­ably high and/or accom­pa­nied by high blood pres­sure). MIs are usu­al­ly caused by long-term stress and inflam­ma­tion (from infec­tions) in the body, which dumps all sorts of dead­ly hor­mones into your sys­tem to sludge things up in there.
  5. Remem­ber that pain in the jaw can wake you from a sound sleep!

Let’s be care­ful and be aware. The more we know, the bet­ter our chances of survival!

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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