Raising Awareness About Female Heart Attack Symptoms: One Survivor’s Story
By: Stacy Tintocalis, Freelance Writer
For Sharon Alexander, the first sign she was having a heart attack wasn’t
what she expected. “I thought it was food poisoning,” she
said. At midnight, she had some gastrointestinal distress. Then early
that morning, she started vomiting.
“Women’s symptoms are so atypical that I had no clue a heart
attack was happening,” Alexander explained.
At age 71, Alexander had an active lifestyle, took frequent walks, and
hadn’t had any major health issues when her heart attack occurred.
There was no genetic predisposition in her family. “I was a non-smoker,”
she said. She didn’t see herself as someone who might be at risk.
But the morning of her heart attack, she just didn’t feel good. “I’ve
only thrown up four times in my life, and it had been 45 years since I’d
last thrown up,” Alexander said. “That was my red flag. The
vomiting was almost an involuntary reaction.”
Instead of weathering her symptoms, Alexander headed from Thomasville to
the Emergency Department (ED) at Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains.
“It was two days after the flooding,” she explained, “so
I expected the ED to be busy. But there was no delay. I got right in.
OMC’s ED did a quick EKG and bloodwork. She went straight from the
ED to do an angiogram. Dr. Kevin Crowe, OMC’s interventional cardiologist,
was already there at 6:30 that morning. “Everything was very thorough,”
Alexander said. “It was a quick diagnosis. I heard the words
acute, and I thought, ‘I think they’re talking about me!’”
When it was clear that Alexander was having a heart attack, Emergency Department
Pysician Dr. Brian Teeter got down on one knee, so he could be close to
her ear. He very calmly explained what was about to happen, saying that
things would start to move quickly. “We got this!” he told her.
“He was the calm in the storm,” Alexander said. “He seemed
At 8:30 that morning, two hours from the time Alexander walked through
the Emergency Department doors, her surgery was complete, and she was
back in ICU. An angiogram found the blockage. Then doctors performed angioplasty
and placed a stent in her femoral artery.
“I think most people don’t realize OMC has interventional cardiology,”
Alexander said. Interventional cardiology uses balloons and stents to
open blocked arteries.
According to Devon Emerson, OMC’s Cardiopulmonary Director, OMC has
extremely fast interventional cardiology. “The national benchmark
is 90 minutes to get from the Emergency Department door to having a stent
or balloon performed in a Cath Lab,” Emerson said. “It’s
called door-to-balloon time. OMC’s average is 64 minutes. During
the first quarter of 2017, OMC’s average was actually 49 minutes.”
“In my case,” Alexander said, “it was more like 45 minutes.”
After her heart attack, when Alexander related her experience at OMC to
her nephew, a physician’s assistant at Mount Sinai Hospital in New
York City, he told her that rural hospitals are faster than city hospitals.
He went on to say that city hospitals keep stabbings and shootings in
the ED. “Where you are,” he told her, “there aren’t
seventeen other crises around you, so you get really good care.”
After going through this experience, Alexander wants people to know that
time is of the essence when you are having a heart attack, and you don’t
need to go to Springfield for great treatment. “All you need is
right here!” she said.
Alexander also wants women to know the range of women’s heart attack
symptoms. “My husband and I had a good friend who died from a heart
attack,” Alexander said. “She ignored her symptoms for weeks.
Women need to know symptoms are so varied. In my case, there was no pain
in the shoulders. No pain in the arms. No pain in the heart. Just nausea
and vomiting. I was fine all day Tuesday and cooked all day.” Her
first symptoms didn’t begin until midnight.
According to the Mayo Clinic, men who have heart attacks may experience
tightness in the chest. Women don’t necessarily experience this.
Instead, a woman experiencing a heart attack may have difficulty breathing
and shortness of breath as well as dizziness, nausea, pain in the right
arm, or perspiration.
Emerson said heart attack symptoms might also include pressure or pain
in your chest or back; pain or discomfort in your neck, jaw, or stomach;
pain that radiates down one or both arms or shoulders; profuse sweating;
So when should you go to the Emergency Department? According to Emerson,
“If your symptoms last more than a few minutes or go away and come
back, come into the ED. In short, if you feel like something isn’t
right, don’t hesitate to get treatment.”
Alexander’s general practitioner was thankful she didn’t dismiss
the first signs of her heart attack and stay home. “The faster you
go to the hospital,” he told her, “the less damage there is
to your heart.” Alexander was lucky to have no heart damage at all.
“We don’t run to the doctor often,” Alexander said, “but
after having this experience, people should know that women’s heart
attack symptoms are different from men’s, and they shouldn’t
wait for their symptoms to get worse.”