This month, I am celebrating my nine-year anniversary of my heart attack. At 41 years old, I suffered a heart attack as I was biking in a neighborhood park alone.
On a beautiful warm spring day in 2009 I decided to go for a leisurely bike ride around my neighborhood after work. I waved goodbye to my family, gulped some water and stole a chicken nugget off of my son’s plate on the way out the door. Perhaps an insignificant detail in most scenarios – but not in this one!
I was biking in a hilly area. I was relishing the fresh air and enjoying the fact that I was alone — a rare occurrence for a mother of three.
Winded, I stopped at the top of a hill and took a short break. Suddenly, I felt a crushing pain in the center of my chest. I tried to walk if off, assuming it was just a bad case of indigestion from the hasty decision to pop a chicken nugget into my mouth as I headed out. I hadn’t taken my cell phone with me, and I hadn’t seen anyone pass by in a while.
The pain refused to subside, and I found myself lying on the grass, thinking “Why did I eat that nugget?” “Should I try to find a phone?” “If I call 911, what would happen to my bike?” And, perhaps one of the most common and dangerous thoughts amongst heart attack sufferers — “What if I call for help and it turns out to be nothing?”
After about 10 minutes, I decided I had to try to get home. I figured the best and fastest way would be to ride my bike back.
When I finally walked into my house looking pale and disheveled, I told my husband that I wasn’t feeling well and went straight to bed to sleep it off.
But when I woke up the next morning, I was still in pain. I decided to take myself to the ER, for what I thought would be a quick check-up on my way into the office. I didn’t even bother cancelling any of my morning meetings.
My day took an unexpected turn when doctors reported that I had experienced a heart attack and whisked me away to the nearest exam room.
My symptoms did not present typically. Tests showed that while I did have a heart attack, I didn’t have any blockages in my arteries, leaving my doctors — and me — puzzled. They suggested a surgical stent be placed in my arteries. But surgery for an unspecified diagnosis didn’t feel right to me so I spoke up. I switched doctors, did research and got more opinions.
But month after month, residual pain in my chest lingered. My new care team suggested that the pain was not cardio-related and ordered invasive tests to prove it. But I knew the root of the problem still lied within my heart.
Normally, I am not one to question the knowledge and authority of a medical professional, but no one can know your body like you do. I wanted to trust that I was in “good hands” and that I’d be taken care of. But the truth is that you have to listen to your gut and advocate for yourself.
Two years later, I was referred to a specialist who gave me concrete answers.
I was ultimately diagnosed with Prinzmetal’s Angina, which cases a temporary spasm in the arteries. In my case, the condition is believed to be triggered by the normal monthly fluctuation of female hormones. This is a little-understood, but real risk factor specific to women, particularly as they age.
I now take medication to manage the condition and haven’t had a flare up since 2011.
Thinking back on my experience, I am forever thankful for a diagnostician who dug deep into my medical files to catch a pattern of symptoms which led to this diagnosis. But this was not a swift or easy process and it’s hard not to wonder what could have happened if I hadn’t spoken up. Had I received the stent as originally suggested, I may have mistakenly assumed that the problem had been taken care of. Had my husband and I not pushed for more answers to my specific symptoms, we may have mis-treated my case and I would not be here to see baseball games and school plays and all of the other large and small milestones in our lives.
That’s why it’s so important to advocate for ourselves and work with people who are willing to think outside the box. Everyone deserves to feel good and live a full life. Never settle for less.
Leslie Gross is a communications professional who lives in Holland, Pa.
A Message from the American Heart Association: Heart disease and stroke kill one in three women – more than all cancers combined. The American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement encourages awareness of the issue, and also action to save more lives. The movement challenges women to know their risk for heart disease and take action to reduce their personal risk and gives them the tools they need to lead a heart healthy life. Learn more at goredforwomen.org