My Heart Attack Story - Lessons Learned

September 13, 2020  •  7 Comments

"You're a healthy, young 57-year old woman with no risk factors. Your EKG is NORMAL. You are NOT having a heart attack."

Those were the words a paramedic said to me on the way to the hospital on Sunday, September 6, 2020.

Here's the rest of the story...

My-Heart-Attack-StoryMy-Heart-Attack-StoryMy heart attack story at 57 years old due to coronary spasm (prinzmetal angina).

 

Photographing a Bar Mitzvah!

As an Event Photographer during a time when most big events have been cancelled due to COVID, I was ECSTATIC to spend my Labor Day weekend photographing a Bar Mitzvah. It was outdoors with just close family and friends in Los Gatos, CA on one of the hottest days of the year.

Outdoor-Bar-Mitzvah-During-CovidOutdoor-Bar-Mitzvah-During-CovidAn outdoor Bar Mitzvah with close friends and family during the time of COVID. By San Francisco Bay Area Photographer Cheryl Bigman.

About an hour in, I began having chest pains. I just had an EKG & Echocardiogram a few weeks prior - ALL NORMAL - so thought it was probably from the extreme heat. Plus, I just lost ~20 lbs!

But as the day went on, the chest pain and pressure became more intense, and began radiating into my neck, jaw, and down both arms. "Crushing" is such an appropriate description. I got a hotel room to cool off and rest before the evening celebration and felt a little better, but as soon as I left the room, the symptoms came back.

 

Denial

I somehow managed to make it through the event and drove myself back home (about an hour). Still not convinced I was in trouble, I took a shower and went to bed. Stupid.

The next morning, I still felt off and knew something was very wrong. I googled all my symptoms over and over again, and finally called 911. Paramedics immediately hooked me up to an EKG and told me all looked normal, and I was NOT having a heart attack. They gave me baby aspirin and Nitroglycerin spray 3x, and the chest pain subsided.

 

IMG_0826My-Hospital-Stay-Coronary-SpasmMy hospital stay after suffering a heart attack due to coronary spasm at 57 years old.

 

The ER

Once I got to the ER, things moved rather quickly. I have to mention - the paramedics told the ER admitting staff that my EKG was normal, and half-jokingly mentioned I used WebMD to look up my symptoms!

The ER doc ran labs & EKG again, and told me my heart enzymes were VERY ABNORMAL.

Troponin - the measure of damage after a heart attack - is normally < 0.5 ng/ML. Mine was 14.9! My EKG only showed a subtle abnormality.


Then came the words I'll never forget...

YOU ARE HAVING A HEART ATTACK.

You are being admitted.

We are taking you to the cath lab for an angiogram.

We will probably find at least one blockage and place a stint to fix it.

 

A swarm of people began prepping me en route to the lab, and even attached the "paddles" in case things went south. I've never been so scared in my life!

What they found was a Coronary Spasm (click on the link to learn more) in a small branch of arteries that cut off blood flow to my heart.

No other blockages found. Injected Nitroglycerin directly into the cath, the spasm relaxed, and the blood started flowing again. Crazy!

 

Hospital-Room-View-My-Heart-AttackHospital-Room-View-My-Heart-AttackView from my hospital room after heart attack at 57 years old from coronary spasm.

 

After 2 days in the hospital, I came home a bit battered and bruised, but physically ok. And feeling lucky to still be here!

 

When Your Dad Cries, You Know...

I think I finally realized the gravity of the situation when my father came over to visit. While hugging him goodbye, he broke down in tears. My father - the hard-ass, disciplinarian, perfectionist I grew up with. Turns out he is the most sensitive, caring, man I know.

 

The Mental Game

I've since learned that Coronary Spasm (also called Prinzmetal Angina or Vasospastic Angina) is rare and chronic, not a one-off event as I initially thought. Still not even sure this is what I have, but I'll know more soon.

While ok physically, the mental game is a different story. It was one of those "That will never happen to me" moments.

At first, I just couldn't process it. Didn't want to talk about it. Didn't want to write about it. Didn't want to think about it. Just wanted to go back to "normal".

After a week of rest, I've finally started coming to terms with the fact that I had a life-threatening event. A trauma. And I need to deal with it. I decided to share my experience publicly with the sole intent of possibly helping someone else prevent a disaster. The outpouring of concern and gratitude was overwhelming.

 

Cardiac Blues

I know I am not alone with feelings of fear and uncertainty after experiencing a heart attack. "Cardiac Blues" is an actual thing. For some great info/resources on Cardiac Blues, click this link - Australian Centre for Heart Health .

Here are Normal Reactions to a Cardiac Event:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Worry
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Relief


For Women - Heart Disease is the #1 Killer

We don't want to leave our responsibilities, we tend to dismiss our symptoms, and we delay getting treatment. I was actually cleaning up the house and paying bills before I finally called 911! What the hell???

And sometimes, even medical staff dismiss our symptoms. I'll never forget that paramedic making light of the fact that I googled my symptoms on WebMD before calling 911.

 

Here's a few things I've learned:

  • Heart attacks are not always text book pain on the left side only. Mine was in the center of my chest and bilateral down both of my arms.
  • Heart attacks are not always caused by blockages of plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis). Coronary Spasm is a chronic condition that occurs in only 2% of people with angina (heart pain). Most never know they have it unless it causes heart symptoms or worse like mine, a heart attack!
  • Symptoms of heart attack in women can be VERY different than men, sometimes with no pain at all.
  • Women are more likely to delay going the ER than men which can be deadly.

 

What Does this Mean for the Rest of My Life?

I still have SO many questions about how this is going to affect my life going forward. I've always believed in living life with no regrets, yet here I am, not knowing if I can still do all of the things I love to do, and pursue all of the dreams still left to pursue.

I had plans to start taking small groups on safari in Africa. My personal lifelong dream has always been to spend time with the mountain gorillas in Uganda. Gorilla trekking trips are strenuous. I've been putting it off, and then COVID hit, and now this. Am I too late???

These are the thoughts running around in my head. For now, all I can do is learn as much as possible about what I have. This week I have follow-up appointments with my cardiologist and have my list of questions ready. My number one goal is to get back to an active, healthy lifestyle. I can tell you for sure, I will never take my health for granted again!

 

Have You Experienced a Heart Attack or Other Life-threatening Event?

Do You or Someone You Know have Coronary Spasm?

Please leave a Comment here about your experience. Coronary Spasm is rare, and I would love to connect with anyone else who has it.

 

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Much love,

Cheryl


Comments

Diana(non-registered)
I just had a heart attack similar to yours except I went to the ER immediately as I suspected what was happening. I take Imbdur, which is an extended release nitro. tablet. From what I understand it's supposed to prevent them. I'm surprised to hear that some of you just get nitro tablet to use as needed as I would think this would be better. I only had my heart attack 1 month ago and so I don't really know how things are going to be for me yet. I'm already exercising again and doing pretty well with that. I can definitely tell that I've been hurt, I'm not as strong as I was, but hopefully if I keep exercising, I will get stronger but I haven't had enough time to find out how it's gping to be for me yet.
Denae Brown(non-registered)
Hello,

I am a 56 year old woman. Honestly, about 50 pounds over-weight, but a pretty normal lipid panel. In 3 months I've had 10 (what I call) chest explosions that cause pain across my upper chest (above the breasts) and up my neck. The pain starts slightly left of center and explodes across my chest and runs up my neck. I've had an ECG, but haven't seen the results and have an upcoming appointment with a Cardiologist. At my next event I was told strongly by my GP to call 911. My events only happen when I am at rest and half of them wake me out of a dead sleep.

I just happened across your story as I was looking up any information I could find on PA. I wasn't originally scared, thinking I had heartburn and started taking OTC pills to help, but then my GP told me to double that. I'm interested in following your story, even though it terrifies me that you actually had a heart attack. My maternal grandfather had angina, and died at 45 of a massive heart attack. Scary stuff. Did you have any signs or spasms before your heart attack?

I'm glad I've found you to follow and learn from.
Tracy S(non-registered)
I'm 39 years old and started having chest pains in March 2021. A few years prior I was a manager at a small store when my hand lost complete feeling which I thought it was carpal tunnel (could of been, I don't know). Anyways, my doctor ran blood work after my telling her my chest pains. My blood levels drew an alarm for her so she had me get an x-ray, CT scan and an ekg. All cane back normal is what my doctor was told, until a few months later my doctor frantically sends a letter for me to get ahold of her asap. She tells me she is referring me to a cardiologist because the lab messed up and my ekg was abnormal plus stating left bundle block. A month later I see the cardiologist who was very concerned of my age and what was going on health wise. She orders a chemical stress test for in a few days, she doesn't want me to wait very long. Almost all day getting the test done and seeing the cardiologist again a few days later, she explains that it looks like a blockage or scar tissue but she doesn't feel it's scar tissue so she is scheduling me in a few days to have a heart cath done or angioplasty in a few days. Having that procedure done she found I have prinzmetal angina which is rare but treatable with medication. She explains that my veins reach around behind my heart which isn't normal and when my blood pressure or I get stressed my veins twist or kink causing my heart to not get blood flow. I'm new to this and it still scares me, we especially since a few days ago after my procedure I had chest pressure and my arm felt heavy which is normal and the people in the er were very nice and helped me understand what's happening better and how to work through it but to know that I can always come in if the pain persists after I take nitro and baby aspirin. I've never been so scared in my life and I'd love to talk with others with the same condition so I don't feel alone.
Cheryl Bigman Photography
Felicia, Anne, and John - Thanks for sharing your experiences. One thing I've learned is everyone's experience with prinzmetal angina/coronary spasm is different and many never actually get a definitive answer on the cause. For me personally, almost a year post heart attack, I've only had a few times where I've felt chest pain. Because I also have GERD, I'm never certain if what I'm feeling is heart-related. I've only taken a nitro pill twice and it did relieve my discomfort. If you haven't already seen it, there's a great Facebook group just for people to share their experiences. It's called, "Prinzmetal/Coronary Artery Spasm Support Group".
Here's the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/626759484130445
Wishing you all the best in your health journeys!
Felicia Campbell(non-registered)
Hi Cheryl, glad you are doing better. I was diagnosed with prinzmetal angina in November 2020. Had very similar experiences/symptoms. However my heart cath did not show a heart attack. I'm currently on a BP and statin med. I have had one other episode and med was adjusted and I have been ok. I'm still not sure if I fully understand this condition and how it could impact my lifestyle. Not to mention having to take med for an extended period of time. Would like to connect and share information regarding this condition.
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