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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