By Nicole L. Garneau, PhD
I woke up at 3:35 am, cold sweats, difficulty breathing, stiff neck, and even had had a small amount of vomit, you know the kind that comes up and you swallow before you realize what just happened. My brain was racking itself for a logical reason for each. Was it because I had a deep tissue massage? That might explain the neck pain. Night sweats? They were more common immediately after I had my daughter. This was five months later, that couldn’t be it, could it?
The chest pain and difficulty breathing … maybe a panic attack? Was I stressed? Sure, but no more than normal, actually maybe even less; things were cruising along at home and at work. But wait, what about the day before? I couldn’t take in a full breath yesterday when I pulled out of the garage. I had chalked it up to the cold air and drove on my merry way.
In the end, I put forth every conceivable reason for what was occurring. Then and only then did I admit, yes at now 4:00 am, these are the symptoms of a heart attack in a woman. “I’m only 35,” I whispered in the dark of my living room. “This is crazy.”
Ultimately, if I didn’t have a family to think about and hadn’t scared myself silly with what-ifs, I wouldn’t have called Kaiser to talk to one of their docs. But, I was also afraid that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, so I actually didn’t call until after I nursed my daughter, got her ready, and got myself ready for work. Once I did dial the nurse number, they put me through to a doc and it was a big relief. First, small world, I knew the doctor already and he was incredibly compassionate as I detailed my story. I really was having the crazy symptoms that women experience during a heart attack. Although the chance was super slim that that it was due to a blood clot or a cardiac issue, the recommendation was to get checked out. So off to the ER I went, and against advice I have read online since, I drove myself. Come on, there was no way I was calling an ambulance!
But had things turned out differently, perhaps I should have. I had normal EKG, normal blood tests, and nothing crying out for attention on my chest x-ray. I was lucky. All the big bad stuff, like a blood clot or a blocked artery in the blood vessels feeding my heart that could cause a heart attack, were not there.
Had they been though, every minute could have counted. Unlike men, women can have symptoms over the course of days and even weeks-- slowly intensifying and persisting. And few of us out there acknowledge those symptoms and think heart attack. It just doesn’t look the same in women as it does for men. The GoRedforWomen.org website doesn’t mince words, “The longer a person goes without treatment, the greater the damage.” I later read that if you are reaching for an aspirin “just in case” then you should reach for the phone.
And that leaves us with some scary stats to consider. Heart disease is “the number 1 killer of women,” Go Red tells us, “it kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, and it kills more women than men. It’s often called the Silent Killer because heart disease victims often don’t even know they have it, so they don’t get treated or make healthy lifestyle changes.”
So join me in wearing red on Tuesday, February 5and check out the Go Red for Women Website (https://www.goredforwomen.org/home/about-heart-disease-in-women/)- seriously check it out! I know a lot of about human health (it’s my job) and yet I still found myself sitting back dumbfounded, thinking, “I didn’t know that,” and multiple times uttered, “Huh,” as I stumbled upon something I hadn’t considered before. And if you can, donate to the cause.
As for me, I still don’t know why I can’t get a deep breathe in (chest congestion due to a cold is my current theory), but I’m now up to snuff when it comes to heart disease prevention in women, and I’ll proudly wear red on Friday, February 5 to help others too.
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