She Had a Heart Attack at 35.

Everyone talks about the secretly skyrocketing rates of heart disease in women. About how women experience radically different symptoms than men. And that we should all be aware. But that’s where things sort of stop. Yes, the symptoms are different – but how different? What should we be looking for? Nausea? Hot flashes? Arm pain? Shoulder pain? WHAT?!?

heart attack woman

According to this stock photo, it’s mostly about clutching your left breast.

Two years ago, a friend of mine suffered a heart attack. She was 35 at the time. It was shocking and horrible and very, very scary. How could a woman as young and healthy as Dawn, have a heart attack?

Thankfully, Dawn survived. And in order to answer everyone’s panicked questions all at once, she did us the selfless favor of writing it all down. Here is part one of her story:

May 2014

So I’m not sure about who knows what, so I figured I’d tell the whole story here. First of all, my husband saved my life when he made the decision to get help for me right away. The doctor said I would have died had he not acted as he did. We are incredibly fortunate that James was even home, since he’s still commuting between Berkeley and Olympia, because I was not in any state to make a call for myself and the rest of the household was asleep.

Anyway, about 7 Sunday morning, I woke suddenly feeling overwhelmingly hot. My entire body burst out in sweat, so much so that it started rolling off me. James woke to me shifting around—a miracle in itself since he’s such a heavy sleeper. From shoulder to shoulder, my chest convulsed painfully. I remember very little after this point. James says I tried to get up but fell over on the bed, staring at him blankly. I do remember vomiting several times.

He called the nurse hotline for our insurance and then 911. The paramedics arrived. I don’t know what they did while they were in the house. I just remember lots of questions and expressions of shock. “She’s 35; she can’t be having a heart attack!” I heard variations of that statement all morning.

Apparently, I was rushed to the ER and directly into surgery. I don’t remember a lot of anything—except the endless extreme pain. James, however, is surely going to have PTSD after this. I think it’s far more difficult to be the person or people on the outside, totally coherent, while a loved one balances on the edge than it is to be the loved one.

I do remember one point during the surgery when the surgeon said, “Oh! Now I see.” And then explained what had happened to me to the rest of the people in the operating room. At the time, I didn’t follow. The following day, it was explained to me:

An artery has three layers. The innermost layer is super slick, so blood can zoom through it without catching on anything. The next layer provides the structural integrity of the artery, and the outside layer provides the strength. Anyway, I had some sort of anomaly somewhere on the inside layer—perhaps a tiny bump or kink (we’ll never know)—that became the source of the problem. My blood rushed by it over and over and it eventually tore open and kept tearing. The blood then began rushing between the two innermost layers of the artery, which caused the blockage that ultimately led to the heart attack. The spiral tear in my artery is about the length of a pointer finger. Ironically, the surgeon said that if my arteries hadn’t been so darn healthy, the tear wouldn’t have been so bad. Meaning, if I had had plaque in my arteries, the three layers of the artery would have held together better.

Interestingly, the entire surgery was done through the artery in my upper thigh through an incision maybe a centimeter long. Using dye, a camera, and other high-tech instruments, the doctor installed four stents in the artery across the lower portion of my heart. The technical terms for what happened are “dissected artery” and “moderate heart attack.”

Essentially, when you have a heart attack, blood and therefore oxygen stop reaching a portion of the heart. The portion of the heart that is deprived long enough dies. So a portion of my lower heart died, which is really weird to wrap my head around. My body will naturally rid itself of some of the dead material, and the damaged place where healthy heart was last week will scar over. That’s what my body is working to do now. My heart will never be as strong as it was, despite the majority of it still being healthy. The doctor says it’ll be my weakness but that everyone has something. That said, it’s not like I was ever going to be a marathoner.

Anyway, it all sounds very scary, and it was very scary. I didn’t know whether I was going to die, but I was incredibly comforted knowing that I have some primo life insurance that would have ensured my family was fiscally safe for years to come.

The bottom line is that I didn’t do anything wrong. No behavior or choices on my part led to this episode. It just happened. It’s incredibly rare, but every few years someone healthy gets hit with a heart attack. According to the doctor, that person is almost always a young woman. He said stress had absolutely nothing to do with it and wouldn’t cause another one. He said my arteries and all of my major organs are in beautiful condition. This episode was akin to getting hit by lightning or having a tree fall on you in the forest. It’s senseless.

And following my stress test in three or four weeks, I will have no restrictions on my activities or diet. I’ve been told to take it easy for a couple weeks and then jump back into my life. May I go hiking alone in the woods? Absolutely. May I drive long distances? No problem. May I fly? Yep. May I drink alcohol? No problem. May I, May I, May I, yes, yes, yes. The only no I was given was in relation to my chiropractic care. Because I’ll be on blood thinners for the next couple years (and other pills for the rest of my life), I can’t have chiropractic adjustments that could lead to joint bleeding.

All in all, I’m okay now. I’m tremendously tired and have slept the majority of the past three days. I’m pretty sure the morphine is mostly out of my system, but I’m not positive. I was practically swimming in it for days. The pain is mostly gone and the doctor says I am healing remarkably fast. In that way, it’s definitely good to be young.

Mostly, aside from feeling surprised, I’m feeling incredibly grateful for the instant care and support all of you surrounded us with. When a community comes together, it’s a special and powerful thing. And I can’t express to you all how much your words of kindness and comfort, prayers and warm wishes, and delivered meals mean to us. At times like these, knowing you’re not alone—and that if the worst happens, your loved ones won’t be alone—is invaluable. So thank you so much for being a part of our lives.

This isn’t the end. Tune in next week for the rest of her story.


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