Texas Health Resources is a proud sponsor of Go Red for Women. Throughout the year, we are working with the American Heart Association to bring heart health education, screenings and inspiration to the women of North Texas.
Each month, we highlight an inspirational story from a female heart patient. Do you have a similar story, or know someone who does? If your life has been impacted by heart disease and would be comfortable sharing your story, please contact us.
I didn’t want to ignore the symptoms.
I remember sitting at my desk when my left arm went numb. I knew that the symptoms for a heart attack were different for women than men, but I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I’m not really an alarmist, but I didn’t want to ignore something that might be wrong, so I went to the emergency room. After examining me the doctor asked who my cardiologist was. I said, “I didn’t have one” and he said, “You do now.”
Turns out I had an irregular heartbeat. To be more specific, a micro valve prolapse. I probably had it all my life and didn’t even know it. The doctor said I’d need to have surgery at some point in my life. That turned out to be 5 years later.
It was a long road to recovery, but the cardiac rehab staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital was there for me. The people were very professional and caring. It was such an uplifting experience. The nurses, exercise trainers and volunteers were genuinely concerned with my health and helping me get better. They set me up with a daily routine of walking, exercising, and stretching. Before I’d start, the nurses would take my blood pressure so I felt like I had a safety net. There’s a comfort to having nurses around after you’ve had a serious heart procedure. Each day I was exhausted, but couldn’t wait to go back.
At the end of my rehab, I was a whole new person. I wanted to give something back so I signed up to be a cardiac rehab volunteer. It’s been a wonderful experience. Every cardiac rehab volunteer has gone through some type of heart procedure. So we can relate to the patient and their family. One of the things I enjoy most is getting to know the patients and their families. I see people who arrive in wheelchairs and by the time they leave, they have a skip in their walk. It’s just a very, very happy place. They truly made a difference in my life. Now I’m making a difference in the lives of others.
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I thought it was indigestion. Actually, it was complete cardiac arrest.
Before my heart attack, I was not aware of any symptoms. In the middle of the night, I woke up in bed with a pressure in the center of my chest, I had no pain though, and I thought it was indigestion. I have since learned many people mistake a heart attack for indigestion. As the night went on, the pressure in my chest continued to worsen, but I still felt no pain. I began feeling nauseated, so I woke my husband to take me to the emergency room.
On the way to the hospital, I started getting pains down both arms. “Run the red light,” I insisted, because I could tell something serious was happening. When we got into the emergency room, I was in complete cardiac arrest. Fortunately, the doctor at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford put me on the examination table and used the paddles to start my heart immediately. They saved my life in that emergency room.
Looking back, I realize I had been having some jaw pain, which I thought was TMJ, a joint disorder. I also had been having more “indigestion” than ever before. The symptoms were all there. I just didn’t know they were symptoms of heart disease at the time.
Thankfully, I had wonderful care at the hospital, the ICU and the cardiac step-down. I then went through a three-month cardiac rehab program of exercise and education. Now I know all about heart disease, especially heart disease for women, and what I need to do in my life to take care of myself in the future.
My husband is a fabulous support for me, helping us change our diet and habits. My doctor, Dr. Michael Mitchell, is great. But I give most credit to the cardiac rehab, because they care so much about me and the other patients. They want us to get better, to change and to live great lives. I’ve decided to volunteer at the cardiac rehab myself. I’m already exercising there three times a week.
My advice to women dealing with heart disease is to pay attention to your body. Learn the symptoms and don’t ignore anything, even if it seems little, like irregular indigestion. Get it checked out.
I had been having regular checkups every six months. I didn’t ignore my health. I just wasn’t aware of the symptoms. They are different for women than they are for men.
Women’s heart symptoms are easy to overlook. And since we tend to put ourselves last, behind our children, husbands and jobs, we may overlook a little pain and say, “It’s no big deal.” We push things to the side.
Now I’ve learned to really take care of myself and to put myself first a lot more. When I need to rest, I rest. And I’ve learned to say no to projects and jobs I think would be too much for me. I’ve been the kind of person that would say, “I can work that in” and push myself. I don’t do that anymore.
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Good News. Bad News.
My first inclination I had any problem was in 2006. I passed out in the shower. It was kind of a shocker. I woke up on the floor thinking, “I have a crick in my neck.” I then opened my eyes and realized I was still in the shower. It was scary, but they checked me out at the emergency room and said, “Sometimes people pass out. It’s no big deal.” Two weeks later, I passed out at work. A family friend whose father was a cardiologist said, “You should go see my dad.” He did tons of tests and hooked me up with Dr. Theresa Menendez on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas. She’s fantastic. She told me “Good news, your heart’s really healthy. Bad news, we’re pretty sure it’s electrical but need to actually catch it in the act.”
Fast forward two years. They tried lots of different approaches, and they just couldn’t catch it when I had an episode. So they finally gave me a reveal monitor, which looks like a little flash drive. It’s implanted right under the skin and has a cool little computer. In August 2008, I had another episode where I lost consciousness. I went in the next morning to see Dr. Menendez. She walked in and said, “Well, we finally caught it. Your heart rate dropped to 20 beats a minute, and we’re putting in a pacemaker. Tomorrow. You’re lucky to be alive.” I was really happy and relieved they finally found an answer. So I got a pacemaker, and it’s been fantastic. I’ve felt 100 percent pretty much since, and I haven’t had any problems. It’s amazing they have access to such awesome technology.
At the end of the day, when someone tells you, “You’re lucky to be alive,” it’s a gut check. I started living more in the moment. And I started advocating for women and heart disease, helping them know how important it is to get checked and check numbers and know what the symptoms are for a heart attack and other problems. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. I hope I can inspire women to keep up with their health because so many don’t know heart disease is the number one killer of women — which is crazy. And why I really try to live in the moment now. I try to be aware of doing things now and not putting them off. I am also more cognizant of my health. I’ve always been a bit of a health and fitness fanatic — very active and always try to eat right. But knowing you need to keep track of your blood pressure, your cholesterol and other health issues, issues that sometimes don’t readily show themselves — that’s key.
In closing, I’d just like to do my rah-rah-rah for Texas Health Dallas, which I truly think is great. I mean, seriously, the nurses are fantastic. What’s really funny is since I was there initially, I’ve been in and out of the cardiac floor at Texas Health Dallas several times, and perhaps because I’m a little younger than the typical patient there, the nurses still remember me. It was like two years later, I came in to have the reveal monitor taken out, and they’re like, “Oh, how are you doing? What’s going on?” They were so wonderful and took such good care of me. To have someone remember you and remember your name — even a couple of years later — that's just amazing service. So that’s really cool. And like I said earlier, I just can’t say enough about Dr. Menendez. She’s just amazing.
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We're always talking about men and heart disease.
On August 31 last year, around 11 or 12 o’clock at night, I woke up with chest pain. I live alone, so I called 911. I unlocked the front door, sat down on the couch and waited for the ambulance to come. When they got there, they hooked me up to a monitor and told me I needed to go to the hospital because I was having a heart attack. About that time, my son, who happens to be a paramedic, showed up. I told him I felt fine at that point and didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital. He knew that I, being a nurse, would understand if he showed me what was on that monitor. So, he turned it toward me and the EKG I saw shocked me.
So we left for the hospital. They were going to take me to where I work in Sunnyvale because I know the people there. About 10 minutes out of town my heart stopped beating in the ambulance, and they had to start CPR. They immediately turned around and took me to Texas Health Presbyterian Kaufman. Those people saved my life. They were wonderful. My heart stopped one more time there in the ambulance, waiting for a helicopter to come and get me; and again while in the helicopter, my heart stopped a total of three or four times. My chest was a solid bruise from having CPR. When I got here, Dr. Levin took me to surgery and put in a stent. One of my coronary arteries was 100 percent blocked. They also put me in hypothermia for 24 hours. I don’t remember any of that. But I do remember the day I went home, three days after I arrived. And six weeks later, I went back to work. I feel wonderful. My post-rest EKG was normal, so I came within the 90-minute window. Dr. Levin actually prevented me from having any heart injury or damage at all. It’s wonderful. And so every day that I wake up, I feel thankful, and I see things in a whole different light.
After my heart attack, I did a lot of research on women and heart disease. I knew we didn’t pay enough attention to it because we’re always talking about men and heart disease and their symptoms. Women’s symptoms can be very different. The only symptom I had, that I can recall, was extreme fatigue. I would come home from work and not even feel like getting out of my uniform. But everybody’s tired. I mean, how many times have you talked to a friend at work and they say, “Oh, I’m so tired” or “I haven’t been sleeping well”? You just don’t think about it. So my goal is to educate people, to let women know they need to be aware and may have different symptoms. You have to know you may not have crushing chest pain or feel like an elephant’s sitting on your chest. You may just have arm pain. You may just be extremely tired. You may just feel like you have the flu, but don’t ignore it. Don't say, “Well, I feel silly going to the doctor because I don’t really feel that bad.” You will when you have a heart attack. I feel bad I didn’t pay attention.
That’s why I talk about it now. I was emotional for a long time, and there are still times today when I talk about it that I get emotional, but I have to talk about it. It has changed everything. It changes how you see the people you love and how you want to see people you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s eye-opening. It makes you think a little more about taking care of yourself. Approximately one out of every four women dies from heart disease. That’s unbelievable. So now I share my experience whenever I can, and if it helps just one person, then it’s made all the difference.
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I drowned after a sudden cardiac arrest.
Late one evening after a weekend of marathon training and tennis tournaments, I began to feel uncomfortable and nauseous. So I decided to take a late bath before bed. Luckily, my husband woke up and decided to check on me. He found me lifeless and blue, under the water. I was clinically dead.
He immediately began CPR, and it brought me back to life. I started to breathe faintly, so my husband called 911. The EMTs took me to Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas where they fought for my life over the next fivedays.
I had suffered an electrical malfunction of the cardiac muscle that strikes without warning. As an athletic person, I never expected something like this to happen to me. Now, I have an internal cardiac defibrillator to prevent it from happening again.
More than 90 percent of people who suffer sudden cardiac arrest die. I credit my survival to my husband’s CPR training and the great team at Texas Health Presbyterian. Now, when I’m not running, I’m encouraging everyone to learn CPR. I am so thankful my husband learned it in high school. It saved my life that night.
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I beat the widow maker.
I thought I was way too young and healthy to have a heart attack. After all, I’m not a slug; I ride my bike 10 miles a day and have low blood pressure and low cholesterol. So, I was kind of surprised when it happened.
I was busy Christmas shopping when my chest began to feel heavier and heavier. At first I thought it was pneumonia from a sinus infection I just had. Then, I thought, “This could be heart disease.” My son’s a doctor, so I figure better safe than sorry and went to the doctor to see if I had a heart problem. They said absolutely not.
The next day it got worse. I drove toward the nearest emergency clinic. I was about five blocks away when suddenly both hands felt like boxing gloves. Then they began to tingle. The tingling went up both arms, and finally, my arms began to shake. I was terrified. Somehow I made it to the emergency clinic. As they were getting me to a room, I collapsed.
They called 911, and I was sent to Texas Health Dallas. The ambulance transmitted my EKG directly to the emergency room, so when I arrived in the emergency room, they knew exactly what to do.
Just as I got into the cath lab, while the doctor was scrubbing in, my son appeared. I tried telling him all the things I wanted done in the event of my death. I expected him to say, “Oh Mom, you don’t have to talk about that now.” Instead he asked, “What else, what else?” and pulled out a pencil. I knew I was in trouble.
Thirty minutes later, I had a stent in my affected artery, I felt great and I was chatting with my son. It was only later I realized I had beaten the widow maker. I had a 100 percent block in my anterior-descending artery. As a rule, those types of heart attacks only have a 5 percent chance of survival.
I am so appreciative to be alive. I am thankful to God, my cardiologist and the whole staff at Texas Health Dallas. I’ve never seen such an efficient group. It was like a well-oiled machine. And in no time, I’m feeling great.
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I am a tough superwoman.
One night in October 2006, I awoke with a terrible pain in my chest. I was frightened, to say the least. I was thinking, “What is this? What kind of pain is this?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew it was very abnormal. Home alone, I threw on some sweatpants and a sweatshirt and drove myself to the emergency room. By the way, no one should ever drive himself or herself to the emergency room. I convinced myself to take that risk because at 2 o’clock in the morning, I did not want sirens and paramedics racing through my neighborhood, so I went to the emergency room by myself.
It didn’t dawn on me it might be heart disease, even though I had a strong family history. My father died of a massive heart attack at age 39, my mother at age 61 from congestive heart failure. My grandmother had two heart attacks and my grandfather had a heart attack and a stroke. But that didn’t matter; I was a tough, multitasking, working-two-jobs, taking-care-of-pets, plants, and finances, superwoman. Little did I know.
At the hospital, I was diagnosed with some irregular activity in my heart. They weren’t quite sure what it was, so I was referred to a cardiologist, who diagnosed me with a leaky aortic valve. But it wasn’t leaking strongly enough that anything could be done. So, I had to wait. It turned out, I waited a total of three years. Every six months I had an echocardiogram to detect how much more it was leaking and if it was causing more problems.
As time went on, I grew more fatigued and was suffering shortness of breath when I exercised. Finally, the stenosis showed it was time to do the surgery. They did my heart cath first, on January 14, 2010. My surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, February 3, 2010. I’ll always remember this, because that was the Wednesday before the Super Bowl. I’m a die-hard Saints fan and they were in the Super Bowl that year. I realized there was no way I was going to be under the influence of any drugs while my Saints won the Super Bowl. So I asked my surgeon to postpone the surgery until the Wednesday after. He said in all his years and over 2000 heart surgeries, nobody had ever asked him that. I said, “Well buddy, there’s a first time for everything.”
He did postpone the surgery and my Saints won the Super Bowl. I had my valve replaced February 10, 2010 at Texas Health HEB, and received five-star treatment. The nurses in the ICU are simply the best. I will never forget them. The entire hospital experience was premium.
I made a deal with God: get me through my surgery and I’ll volunteer for the rest of my life. So I now work with WomenHeart, a support group for women with heart disease. My goal, mission and passion are to help women be healthy. You need to always know your numbers and know what’s going on in your body. It’s pretty much the most important thing a woman needs to do to take care of herself. I also have the honor of being a Cardiac Rehab volunteer at Texas Health HEB. This is the joy of my life, being able to coach, help, and motivate the patients that come through the program.
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On September 16, 2011, I was rushing around getting ready for work like any other day, but I wasn’t feeling well. I felt heaviness in my chest, nausea, heartburn; I just didn't feel like myself. It started about six in the morning. I went about my business, trying to shake it off and get to work. By seven, I was at my front door trying to get my shoes on and head out when I had a pain so intense that it took my breath away, along with my ability to stand. I landed on my knees. At that instant, I thought I might be having a heart attack.
My son went next door to my sister’s and had her come and check on me. I told her I thought I might be having a heart attack. She immediately called 911. While she was on the phone, I tried to make it to my bathroom and was not successful. I vomited profusely. Soon after, my husband arrived. He was frantic and scared. To be honest, I was terrified. Thoughts were running rapidly through my mind: What about my grandsons? What about my family? They have all been through so much already this year, how could I do this to them? I thought I was too young to have a heart attack. I soon found out heart attacks don’t discriminate.
When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs moved me off the floor and onto a stretcher, then loaded me into the back of the ambulance. As we sat in my driveway, they did the prep work for the hospital, poking me over and over with needles trying to start an IV, running an EKG, etc. They gave me nitro to ease the pain.
Once at the hospital, I believe I had Dr. Brister. I’m not sure. At that point I was in shock and confused. A swarm of nurses, EMTs, doctors and family members were in the room. Everything happened so fast. Everyone was asking questions. They were cutting my clothes off, and all I was thinking was how scared I was, wondering if I was going to die. If I was, there were things I needed to say. So I told my eldest daughter to call the other children and let them know, and not to let my grandsons forget their Nana, and please let them know how much I love them all. I asked her to take care of John, my husband, her step-dad, because I was afraid he wasn’t going to handle this very well.
It seemed like I was only at the hospital for 10 minutes or so before the CareFlite team arrived. They had me on the helicopter in just a matter of minutes. As they loaded me on, I remember my husband wanting to ride with me. He couldn’t due to weight limits on the helicopter. I could see the disappointment, concern and love in his eyes, and in my daughter’s eyes as well. As I was lifted into the air and watched them drift slowly out of sight, I felt so alone, but I thought I just have to survive this.
The ride was not an easy one. I started having more pain, and I begged for them to help me. I didn’t want to die. I turned my head, looked out the window and thought, this is it, this is the last view I will ever see. I remember passing over a tank, watching the amazing clouds, the green scenery, which quickly turned into busier traffic, so I knew we were getting closer to Fort Worth. I must have dozed off or blacked out. As I came to, we were landing. The EMTs pulled me out of the helicopter. I lost consciousness again. And now I can mark “helicopter ride” off of my bucket list.
I awoke several times on the operating table. I was told they had to shock my heart with the paddles because I died. I remember a nurse hanging up a phone. She kept encouraging me to cough. “If you want your heart to start beating again, you need to cough,” she said. It seemed like nurses and the doctor (I guess that’s who they were) kept screaming at me, “Lower your head, put your head back down!” I’m not sure why, but I was totally at peace. I didn’t understand or care what they wanted. I have so many questions about the time I was in the operating room. I probably will never find out exactly what happened.
What I do know is soon after I was in a place that was the brightest, whitest white, with white, billowy clouds. It was so serene. Then I could hear my grandson Tristan saying, “Nana, where are you? You can’t leave me yet. You need to come back to me, Nana. I love you.” But I couldn’t see him; I could only hear him. I remember searching and searching for him, calling out his name. Then I woke up in the ICU, thinking it was all just a nightmare, and then reality set in. I actually had a massive heart attack. It was totally inconceivable to me.
But I did. I entered the hospital on Friday morning, September 16, and was released on Sunday morning, September 18. I had the surgery and had a stent inserted into my heart. I had damage to the whole front side of my heart. I will find out soon if any of my heart actually healed itself. I will probably be on medications for the rest of my life. But I am here. I survived thanks to some of the most wonderful nurses and amazing doctors. They all worked very hard to pull me through this. I would like to thank all of them for what they did for me. But most of all, I would like to thank and praise the Lord, my Savior, for this amazing second chance I have been blessed with. I thank my grandson Tristan for calling me back when I seemed lost. My husband, who never left my side, not even for a minute. And all of my loving supportive family. I couldn’t have pulled through all this without all of their love and support.
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In March 2008, I’d been feeling fatigued and lethargic. Then one day while playing bridge, I started having pain in my left shoulder. The pain began radiating down my left arm. My bridge partner, who was a nurse, said, “You need to get to a doctor.” I said, “Why, it’s only my arthritis.” She said, “Get yourself to a doctor.”
This was Monday. I made an appointment for Thursday, the earliest they had. When I got there, they took an EKG. About five minutes later, a male nurse came in with a wheelchair and said, “Mrs. Benvenuto, you’re having a heart attack as we speak. We cannot allow you to leave this office. I will wheel you to the emergency room.”
They did a catheterization and found I had four blockages. While I was having quadruple bypass surgery, they discovered an aneurysm. After two more hospitalizations, I entered the cardio rehab program at Arlington Memorial Hospital where the staff went above and beyond to help get me back on my feet. They couldn't have been more caring and dedicated to getting me active and functioning again. I am forever grateful for their involvement in my recovery!
I am now committed to fitness, and I attend the cardio fitness program at Texas Health Arlington Memorial five mornings a week. I've never been in better shape, nor have I ever felt better.
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I have, what you call, broken heart syndrome. It’s actually a blessing because it’s a little different from a heart attack. I had just put down a dog that I had for almost 14 years, and three days after that, I began experiencing heavy chest pain. I was home alone, so I took a baby aspirin and lay down on the couch. Forty-five minutes later the pain went away, and I never told anyone. Not my husband, my children or anybody else. I just went on living my life. Flash forward a week and I was getting my house ready for a friend’s visit. I was almost out the door, to run some errands, when the pain hit me again. It was the exact same pain, a heavy pain in my chest, shoulders and upper arms. What I remember the most is how bad my arms hurt.
In my mind I didn’t have time for being sick, so I cleaned up my kitchen, brushed my teeth and headed out to run my errands. I was in a store for around 30 minutes, when I remember just hurting. When I finally got home I just unloaded my groceries and literally threw them all over my kitchen. I got on the couch and didn’t call anybody.
My husband came home and walked into the kitchen. He knew something was off. He said, “Honey, is everything OK?” And I said, “Well, I’m hurting.” He immediately wanted to take me to the emergency room, but I sternly said, “No, I don’t like hospitals.” This went on for a while. He kept giving me aspirins and snuck off to his office to look up heart attack symptoms. The trouble was, nothing was matching. In a heart attack it’s not your upper arms that normally hurt. It’s down one side. He kept insisting we go to the emergency room, but I continued to say no. There was so much to do to get ready for my friend, and I thought if I waited it would just go away.
Eventually, my husband went to bed. My son came home and I didn’t say anything to him either. I tried to sleep, but the pain was so intense. I just kept popping aspirin and tried to tough it out. Eventually, I fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and the pain was still there. At that point I was scared and worried. I knew I needed to see a doctor. My husband had already left for work, so I called him and he drove me to the doctor. When the doctor came in and asked me about my symptoms. He looked over my blood work and everything seemed fine. He didn’t think it was my heart, but he then said, “I’m not comfortable sending you home.” I said, “Can’t you just give me some pain medicine or something?” I was still thinking of my friend visiting and all that I had left to do. I was being stupid.
When we got the emergency room they admitted me almost immediately. They took me up to have an EKG and a chest X-ray. A doctor came and sat beside my bed and started asking me all kinds of questions, looking at this monitor the whole time. All of a sudden the heart monitor went crazy. They said I was having a heart attack. I was freaking out. I burst out crying. I had to sign a form so they could give me a heart cath, but I was so panicked I couldn’t even focus. I signed and they rolled me into another room for the heart cath.
I slept through part of it but I remember waking up and Dr. Park asked me, “Tell me about your dog.” I told him everything about my dog and how I was still grieving for her. He then said this was a classic case of broken heart syndrome, which meant nothing to me whatsoever. It turns out putting her down did a real number on me and it was a cause for my heart attack. I spent that weekend at the hospital. I was so appreciative of the great care I got. My friend came on Saturday morning and spent the entire weekend in the hospital with me. When I went home, I had a blessed week. I just think God had different plans for me. He kept me here for a reason. And whatever that is, I want to serve Him. Anyway, that’s my story.
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Six years ago, at 5:10 on a Monday morning, I awoke feeling different than I ever had before. Something was very wrong. My hands were numb, and I had pain radiating down my arms, jaw line, shoulders and back. It was a pain that I had never experienced. I knew almost immediately I was having a heart attack. How I knew, I don’t know. But I just knew that’s what it was. I woke my husband, and I said, “Honey, I’m having a heart attack.” He flew out of bed and ran to get our self-care health book with a checklist of symptoms to tell if you are having a heart attack.
As he started to read off symptoms, I began experiencing them. It started out with the numbness, and then a cold sweat came over my entire body. I was still able to walk to the car, so he gave me an aspirin and drove me to the emergency room. Luckily, we were only about a mile from the hospital, so we got there in no time. I walked in and told them, “You know, I think I’m having a heart attack.”
I went through triage and then was taken to the emergency room. And sure enough, I had an irregular EKG, and my blood test showed that I had enzymes in my blood. For heart attacks, measuring the levels of cardiac enzymes in the blood is a common test for the diagnosis of a heart attack and the amount the damage done to the heart. I was admitted to the hospital and went through the CATH lab. They found I had blockage of 70, 90 and 99 percent in my LAD, which is the left anterior descending artery. I have three stents now and I’m doing great.
That was my introduction to heart disease, and like many women, I discovered I had coronary artery disease the hard way. Unfortunately, there are women not as lucky as I was in surviving a first heart attack. Because of the fast treatment I received, I was able to recover with minimal damage to my heart and am now taking medication to lower my cholesterol and blood pressure.
I hope that everyone realizes that there is no quick fix for heart disease. The good news is that heart disease can be prevented or controlled by making lifestyle changes, in most cases, by taking medication. My mission is to make sure that other women don’t have to experience what I did. Now I work as an advocate educating women about heart disease and the importance of early detection, accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.
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Heart disease can be a surprise. Most people don't anticipate having heart disease, particularly not at the young age I did, 49. I was a teacher. I was fit, was not obese, had never smoked and had only the occasional drink. I was the most stunned person in the world when an ER physician told me I was having a heart attack. One day I came home from school and began experiencing terrible back pain in the middle of the right side of my back. It became more severe until it was a relentless stabbing pain. I was trying anything to make the pain go away: a heating pad, lying on the floor, sitting in the chair, anything. My husband kept urging me to call my doctor or let him take me to the ER. I resisted, thinking the pain would subside. It continued for almost four hours.
About midnight, he said, "We are going to the emergency room." "For a backache, seriously? They'll laugh me out of there," I replied. They didn't. They admitted me to the hospital and the next day did an angiogram, which revealed two main primary arteries to my heart were 90 percent blocked. They took me immediately to do an angioplasty and stent placement. The blockage was unusually elongated, so they chose to put in an extra-long stent. It collapsed in the middle of the night as I lay in the ICU and I had another heart attack. By morning, they'd brought in a surgeon and had to perform double bypass. However, I did not get better because I was left with congestive heart failure. Subsequently I experienced two additional heart attacks.
After one additional admission to the hospital a critical care doctor said, "You're not getting enough exercise." He said, "I'm going to send you to physical therapy." I went to cardiac rehab, but when a nurse listened to my heart she wouldn't let me get on the treadmill. She then said, "If I put you on there, you could die." She asked who my doctor was and I told her I really didn't have one. She said, "I have a friend and I'd like for you to go see him." She recommended I see Dr. John Willard.
I needed someone to take a close look at my history and assess my current condition. Dr. Willard was that person. He's now the medical director at the Heart Center at Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth. He is an amazing, amazing doctor. He saved my life. He saw me within 48 hours and did a full workup one night when nobody was left in his office except my husband, me, the custodian and himself.
He told me that night I had congestive heart failure. The only time I'd heard that phrase before was on television on ER when they would say, "And the time of death is..." So, of course, I thought it was a death sentence. And I began to get my affairs in order. But it wasn't a death sentence. Thanks to Dr. Willard I quickly learned that heart failure could be managed and instead I began the rest of my life. It's one reason I'm so dedicated to Harris Helping Hearts, the organization we formed at Texas Health Harris Fort Worth. It really does help people see the reality of their disease, get some perspective on it and understand that congestive heart failure is not a death sentence. It's a manageable disease.
That was more than 14 years ago. The most amazing things that a person could ever experience have happened to my life in those 14 years. I became assistant dean of the Honors College at UTA. I've gotten to see our son and daughter advance their professional careers. I've seen my son marry, and he and his wife gave us two beautiful grandchildren. I discovered that being a grandmother is the greatest thing that could ever happen to a woman. My journey has been remarkable! We travel; we do everything we want to do. People don't believe me when I tell them that I have heart disease. That says so much about modern medicine, the amazing science and incredible physicians we have attacking this disease today.
I think it's so important for women to understand that in terms of heart disease, they may present differently from men, which is exactly what happened in my case. Many times women have symptoms they don't recognize as heart disease. I also think women tend to neglect themselves in favor of their families. They feel they have to go forward — that they're the glue that keeps the family functioning efficiently. So they just keep going, denying they have a problem. It probably is a little delusional because, truthfully, our families can make it without us. I found that out myself, but when you're in the thick of it, you just can't see that. The time came when I had to rely heavily on them.
My bottom line: women need to understand what their symptoms mean, and they need to know everything about prevention. Those are things that are talked about a great deal today but were not so much in 1997. Most important, if women understand causes and prevention of heart disease, then everyone in the family understands also, and that knowledge will benefit the entire family.
I make it my mission to fight heart disease because I have two children, a son and a daughter. They may be more likely to have heart disease because it's presented in our family. My husband and I also have two beautiful and amazing grandchildren who I hope will never have to struggle with this disease. I continue to fight this disease because my cardiac experiences have prompted friends and family members to seek medical assessments and made lifestyle changes that have helped them avert the horrible surprise that I experienced. I share the education I have gotten regarding prevention and management of cardiac disease. Others have learned through my experience and that makes me feel great.
In 1997, no one talked much about women and heart health. While I was in the ICU that horrible September, a nurse told me I was lucky to be alive because women have a higher mortality rate from cardiac disease than men. That was a stunning statistic. I'm so grateful to the American Heart Association for their emphasis on women, and the Go Red for Women campaign has been fantastic. What they have done has benefited millions of women and saved more lives than we will ever know.
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My heart attack has really become a part of my life. After it, I didn’t have a lot of lifestyle changes to make, but I think about it every day.
My symptoms came on very quickly. In fact, I went from normal to thinking I was dying, in about three minutes. I went to bed one night and awoke with nausea. It felt different from a stomach virus. I told my husband something was wrong, and within a few minutes I was having cold sweats, hyperventilating and experiencing excruciating pain in my shoulder blade. It felt like my body was failing me.
My husband is a physician, and although he doesn’t work on hearts, from his experience and my symptoms he knew it was heart related. I will say, the only thing we did wrong was that we drove to the Emergency Room. Which was the right place to take me, but I should have been in an ambulance. If I would have truly “failed” while he was driving, that would have been catastrophic. When you’re in an ambulance they can take care of you in the moment. But since my husband was on staff at the hospital, he knew exactly how to get me to the ER. He got me there within minutes, but I still had significant heart damage in such a small amount of time.
They very quickly took me into an examining room and did an EKG, which showed that I was in extreme distress. The staff immediately said, “Take her out of this room!” And sent me straight to the crash room. That’s when my husband knew something very serious was going on.
The ER doctor, who didn’t look old enough to be my brother, leaned over and said, “Mary, you’re in the throes of a heart attack.” Instantly I had people putting lines in my arm, placing nitroglycerine under my tongue and wiping my forehead, and it all became very real for me. The cardiac team was called in. They performed an angioplasty and put in a stent. I spent three days in the hospital and then was in cardiac rehab for three months.
That was seven years ago.
When I look back, I never smoked. I was never obese. I was in pretty good shape going into my heart attack. But now I take my medications religiously, and I’m just aware. I exercise, eat right and do all of the healthy things, but now I’m conscious that I’m a heart attack survivor.
I was honestly embarrassed when I had a heart attack. In fact, I told my husband right out of recovery, “Why don’t we not tell anybody about this?” Which is crazy. I think other women can relate to that in some kind of way. I felt like my heart attack weakened me, not physically – but it’s something that happens to men. I was 42 years old, and it would’ve never entered my consciousness that I would have a heart attack. I would have guessed breast cancer or something like that. I’ve had many girlfriends go through that, and they are wonderful survivors. I don’t know why women don’t talk about it. Maybe it makes us think about our own mortality. It just usually happens to men and to people who are older. I was 42, which isn’t young, but way too young in my mind to have a heart attack.
So whether or not your family has a history of heart disease, which mine didn’t, it’s important to stay educated. Because understanding your family’s heart history, your cholesterol, and your blood pressure is the best way to get to ahead of heart disease. In the medical world, so many things, like research and studies, are geared towards men. That’s changing, and Go Red is here to bring that change faster. Go Red is a proactive women’s movement that promotes education and women empowering other women. Everyone, men included, have women in their lives: their wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, coworkers. So it’s a powerful movement that men and women should get involved with.
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I was at the gym working out and literally flatlined.
It was July 4, 2011. I fell off the treadmill. A lady working out behind me screamed, and I was out on the floor. Completely. I don't remember any of it. She came around the machines and started CPR. My trainer joined her. They called 911. It took the EMTs only three to four minutes to get to me. My husband, who's a police officer, was working that day and heard it come over the dispatch. What they said was a lady had fainted. He knew I was at the gym but didn't put two and two together. And then one of the EMTs, a buddy of his, called and said, "It's your wife, she's fainted, you need to come to the gym." He finished writing a ticket and headed right over to the gym. They met him at the door and told him it was a bit more than me fainting.
At that point he could see over their shoulders. They had hooked me up to an AED. First shock, nothing. Second shock, I went into a heart rate of like 260 something. The third one brought me back down to about a hundred, and they packed me up and took me to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano. I was in hypothermia for four days. They found 90 percent blockage in my LAD artery, put a stent in and I'm here. Amazingly.
The odd thing is I had my physical at the end of April and had told my regular doctor that I had some fast heartbeats. I was on a heart monitor for a full month with nothing, no other symptoms. At all. Looking back, the only thing we think could have been a symptom was I had pain in between and high in my shoulder blades. We passed it off, including my doctor, because my EKG looked fine, my lab work looked fine, my cholesterol was great. I'd been working out with a trainer for about three months, had lost about 20 pounds and had changed the way I ate. My 13-year-old had been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes the first part of December, so my husband and I made an effort for the whole family to change our lives. To be more healthy. To be a good example for her. By doing that, we thought we were getting ourselves in healthy shape too.
I feel like I did all the things I should have: going to my doctor, eating healthy, working out. That's the scary part. That and the fact that I have kids — three of them are daughters. There's way more known about symptoms and signs for men than for women. That needs to change. I believe education is the key. Education for everybody, young and old. I'm 43 years old and to me, that's not old. I feel like at 43 this should not be something anyone should have to worry about. Nor should anyone who's 20 or 30. I make it my mission to educate, to fight heart disease for them. And for my family. For my children. My daughters.
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I had a "healthy man's" heart attack.
I am a survivor of a massive heart attack. One night while driving to work, I started having severe chest pain. I drove about a mile, then turned around and went back to a fire station I'd passed. They pulled me out of my car, hooked me up to monitors and started an IV. Being a nurse, I knew what was happening. I knew the defibrillator was being charged. They shocked me while I was awake. That was quite an experience. They packed me up and took me to the hospital. I was awake for the trip to the hospital. My family tells me I coded again in the ER. I don't remember that. I was wheeled off to the Cath Lab, where it was found I had 100 percent occlusion in my left main artery. I have one stent now. I was on a balloon pump and intubated for three days before I woke up. I had to wear a portable defibrillator for about two-and-a-half months afterwards in case I went into sudden cardiac arrest. I started Cardiac Rehab at Craig Ranch Outpatient Center the following week and continued that until I started work again.
The heart attack I had is often called a "widow-maker." It's usually got about a 5 percent survival rate. It came as a complete shock to me. My doctor called it a "healthy man's" heart attack. My blood pressure was fantastic. My cholesterol was fantastic. The only thing I had going against me: I'm overweight. I have been diagnosed with sleep apnea. They think that's probably one of the main causes of my heart attack. I had heart damage from the sleep apnea, and a bunch of platelets broke loose and occluded off the artery.
I now have a whole new outlook on life. I couldn't get over the fact that at 39 I suffered a usually fatal heart attack and was alive to talk about it. I have a 1 1/2-year-old son and a 3 1/2-year-old daughter. God truly had another plan for me — to be around to take care of my kids. This was a major wakeup call. I quickly built up my exercise program through Cardiac Rehab. They also helped me work on improving my eating habits. I think my body went into shock due to all the fruits and vegetables I was giving it. I developed a better outlook on life. I no longer focus on the negative — who has time for that? I have also learned to slow down and have fun. Since my heart attack I have more fun with my kids. I don't enjoy just sitting around and doing nothing. As a family we now try new things and get out more. Life is short — have fun.
I don't want to hear about somebody like me. It's not worth dying for. Something as simple as getting blood drawn and seeing a doctor makes it so much more preventable. It's not as cut and dried as getting a colonoscopy every year or getting a mammogram. But just taking that little time to get yourself checked out, to listen to your body, to lose weight, to stay active and to exercise. It just makes you feel so much better.
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My world had lost all its color.
Heart disease kind of snuck up on me. I’m a mom and a grandmom. And a nurse. I was so busy taking care of everybody else, I didn’t take time to investigate my own risk factors. I was tired, didn’t have my normal energy. So I went to my doctor. Maybe it’s the way I told him, the words I used. Maybe I didn’t give him enough information. But all he saw was a full-time nurse working on her master’s, a mother, a grandmother, and he figured I was tired and might be depressed. So he prescribed antidepressants.
I knew in my heart there was something wrong, so I went to another doctor. The second physician said the same thing: you’re working too hard, you should slow down going to school. I think you’re depressed. You need some antidepressants. At that point, I got angry and called a cardiologist I knew. I said there’s something wrong with me. I’m going to die. He asked me what exactly was wrong, and I said, “My world’s lost all of its color.”
He did an EKG and it was normal. He scheduled me for a stress test the next week, but I didn’t go. I went to work that morning and a very astute young nurse who works for me said, “You’re grey. There’s something wrong with you.” At first I kind of argued: I’ll be okay, I just need to rest. She said, “Do you want to walk to the ER or do you want to go by wheelchair? “And she took me to the ER.
They did another EKG. It was negative. They did an echocardiogram. It was negative. The lab work that came back was all negative. But I told them, you’re not sending me home from the ER because if you do, I’ll die. I did start to experience some pain, but my pain was in my back. My pain was in my shoulder. And my pain was in my right jaw. But it wasn’t substernal, crushing, radiating pain. My pain was different. At that point in time the cardiologist said he’d do a cardiac cath the next morning. I went in for the cardiac cath. They returned me to my room, and a few hours later I had four-vessel coronary artery bypass surgery. Today, I’m left with a big scar on my chest and a message for women: “We have to listen to each other. The signs of heart disease are there, but if we don’t listen, we’ll miss them. And it’s up to us to look out for each other.”
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I thought I was home free.
I battled and beat breast cancer almost 20 years ago. Double mastectomy. Hysterectomy. I thought I was home free. Then this past spring I went to my family doctor for a medicine recheck. I was mentioning some symptoms I’d been having: some blood pressure problems, some dizziness, some chest pains. I told him it was just stress. I know my body. He literally stopped, took out a prescription pad and wrote me a prescription for Nitroglycerin. I kept saying, “It’s just stress.” The next day I was at the cardiologist and promptly failed the stress test and EKG. Within 3 days I had a stent put in one of my arteries; I had 80% blockage. Guess I was wrong about the stress thing.
Can you believe it? I survive Stage III cancer and then end up with heart disease. My dad died of heart disease when he was in his 80s. Cancer from my mother’s side, heart disease from my daddy’s side. Those are some equal opportunity diseases. But today, I’m doing great. I’m still in cardiac rehab at Texas Health Arlington Memorial three days a week. And those people are extraordinary. And I’m really looking out for myself. Cancer taught me to learn to listen to my body, and I thought I did. I guess I misread it. Now I listen even a little more closely. That’s what I tell everyone. Learn to listen to your body. You know best. Trust your instincts. And while you’re at it, see if you can get your doctor to listen to you, too.
I’ve become an advocate. I’ve got the time now. After nearly 40 years teaching 1st and 2nd grade, I’ve retired. But teaching is still the heartbeat of my life. After what I’ve been through, I feel I’ve got a lot to teach. It’s a mission for me now. And my message is simple. Take the time to deal with your heart disease. Find creative ways to prepare meals that are good, and good for you. Figure out how to make exercise part of your routine. I’m a little limited due to some issues from the cancer, so I bought these itty bitty weights and work out with them while I watch TV.
People ask me what the worst part has been. I don’t think about it that way. When I got cancer, I never asked, “Why me?” Same thing here. Can’t dwell on the negative. My philosophy on life is: God doesn’t ask you to vote, he just says, “Here it is – let’s see what you do with it.” And I always choose to do what I need to do with a positive attitude. Although at one point I realized that thanks to heart disease I can’t eat shrimp po’ boys anymore. That’s rotten.
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