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Raising Awareness About Female Heart Attack Symptoms: One Survivor’s Story

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. Boom. Boom!”

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 triage and 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 so reassuring.”

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; or anxiety.

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.”

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