I was instant messaging with my husband, Alex, while in the hotel room in Oklahoma City on February 19, 2004. I was accompanying our son Ty, age 6 and the youngest of my three boys, who was touring with the show Miss Saigon. I was letting Alex know that after having Campbell’s chicken noodle soup with Ty, I noticed heaviness on my chest. I told him not to worry, it was probably just gas. Burping, though, didn’t relieve that feeling of an elephant sitting on my chest. The heaviness lasted for several minutes.
That was a Thursday. Ty was off that night. Everyone else in the Miss Saigon production was working at the Civic Center Music Hall. EMS came to my hotel room immediately after I called the front desk with my situation. The hotel manager had called 911.
Ty was instant messaging Alex as EMT put the EKG monitor and oxygen on me. The heaviness of the elephant’s foot on my chest didn’t alter my voice pattern. I had no labored breathing. My sternum felt so close to my spine that I could feel each vertebra. The EMT gave me two nitroglycerines and an aspirin. Finally the elephant lifted off my chest. I signed a liability release due to my refusal to go to the emergency room. I thought, “Why go to the ER?” I’m 42, in the best shape of my life, walking daily and had never been thinner. “I’m fine,” I thought to myself, “It was just a fluke, nothing is wrong.” Ty and I continued traveling with the North American tour of Miss Saigon until March 28th.
My father had heart issues and I had a predisposition. Dr. Rodriguez, my general practitioner, had taken a base line EKG in 1997. When I turned 40, he put me on blood pressure medication due to my genetic predisposition to heart disease. Because of my “incident” he repeated an EKG upon my return home to Florida. The base line EKG was comparatively different from this recent one. A battery of tests were ordered. There was a pulmonary lung test. I had taken a leave from work as a dental hygienist and had been traveling for 27 weeks on a bus with my son, so we needed to rule out a possible pulmonary embolism. Next was the angiogram, also negative; no blockage, no damage from “chest pain.” My husband and I met with Dr. Musial, a cardiologist after he received all my test results. His first question was: “Did you do cocaine?” “NO, Never, I am hyper enough!” I retorted. Since I hadn’t gone to the ER in Oklahoma City and had my troponin blood levels measured, Dr. Musial couldn’t classify my “incident” as a heart attack.
Fast-forward to September 19, 2009, it was a usual Saturday. I attended a work related dental hygiene meeting, then a football game for my sons Jordan and Ty. It was another hot day in Florida, so we all showered after the game. I felt the heaviness on my chest again. This time my left arm was tingling too. The chest pains I had in 2004 were not accompanied with tingling in my left arm, maybe that’s why I was in denial that it was a heart attack. This time I took an aspirin immediately. When the pain didn’t go away after 20 minutes I made Alex drive me to the hospital.
Maybe I should have continued going to the cardiologist after my first chest pains. It was Dr. Musial who was called into the ER to perform another angiogram. Again, there was no heart damage, no blockages, but I was kept overnight. I kindly told Dr. Larned, the cardiologist on duty Sunday morning, that I needed to go home because I had patients to see on Monday. He put me in my place saying, “No you’re not going anywhere for the next week.” Bewildered, I wanted to know why I had to stay in the hospital, since there was no heart damage and my angiogram was normal. “You will stay in ICU until we get your troponin levels down to six,” Dr. Larned said firmly. (Troponin levels are used as a diagnostic marker for myocardial infarction or heart muscle cell death.) I was still in denial because I couldn’t believe it when he told me my troponin levels were 45! Off I went to get a nuclear cardiac test to rule out a tear in my aorta that could mimic a chest pain. Thankfully, this test was negative. At this point my family was notified that I was in the hospital for a heart attack. My oldest son Steven, at Marine boot camp training in Camp Lejeune, was called by the Red Cross to come home.
Follow up visits with Dr. Musial placed me on a strict walking program, 6 days a week for a minimum of 45 minutes per day. My Uncle who was my dad’s cardiologist saw my lab reports; he reiterated that women do not always have the same heart attack symptoms as men. Acid reflux, gas, fatigue are associated with women’s symptoms. My uncle also told me that damage from small capillaries is not always seen on angiograms because there are so many capillaries in the heart that allow blood to flow into the affected area that damage would not always be detected.
One month before my heart attack, I remember I was extremely fatigued. I had just gone back to school to get my Master’s in Science degree. Naturally, I thought my being tired was because I was working too hard. I was only walking three times a week for a half hour. More often, I’d hit the snooze button than walk the dog. Since I work close to home I always went home for lunch, during that month I took a twenty-minute nap. Then, I’d nap again before I made dinner for my sons while they were at football practice. What was startling, was even after all the sleep I had during the day, I went to bed early! All my blood work prior to both chest pains was normal.
I realize now I should have paid attention to my heart attack symptoms in women very early on; tiredness, dizziness, and unregulated blood pressure. Listen to your body! Check your blood pressure. Remember women and men’s heart attack symptoms are very different. Now, I exercise daily. I even participated in the Ironman Corporate Challenge with Xlear, where I work as a Xylitol Educator. I take advantage of the alone time in hotels when traveling on business. I take calming, soothing salt baths. I appreciate the quiet. Above all, I appreciate the time I spend with my husband and family.