My story: Don’t ignore symptoms of heart attack

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Our family doctor smiled at me sheepishly as he walked into the exam room.

“You’re the last person I would have expected…,” he said trailing off, as I sat there for a check-up two weeks after emergency open heart surgery that saved my life.

Six months earlier, I had passed my annual physical with flying colors.

Years of aerobics, spinning, distance cycling and wrangling a 90 pound Golden Retriever on treks through the woods had left me in good stead. At 62, my heart was strong. My blood pressure was well within the bounds of normal. Everything looked fine.

Then we got to Labor Day.

Around noon, I went to my plot at the community garden about a mile from home to harvest the final fruits of summer for a cookout that evening. When I bent down I felt a sudden excruciating pain shoot through my sternum, up the side of my neck, around my ear and down my jaw.

It lasted maybe five seconds.

I thought about calling for help, but I didn’t collapse. I wasn’t short of breath and my chest didn’t hurt.

So, I gathered my harvest and headed home.

Later that afternoon, I began to feel nauseous. By the time we put the steaks on the grill, I couldn’t stand the smell of food.

My sister, who has been a nurse for years, called to chat and asked about my day.

When I told her what was going on, she was quick to respond.

“You’ve just described the symptoms of a heart attack in a woman. You need to get to the emergency room now,” she said.

When I balked, protesting that the ER would be too busy on a holiday weekend and said I would gladly go in the morning, she doubled down.

“You’ll be dead in the morning,” she said, growing angry at my reticence.

I’ll be wearing red on Friday for Go Red for Women Day, to raise awareness about women’s heart health, and I’m glad I listened to her.

After sitting in the ER for several hours, physicians baffled at my condition ordered a CT scan.

Shortly after the test, a doctor with a horrified look on his face came in and told me I needed to get to Pittsburgh, now.

It wasn’t a heart attack. My heart was fine. But I had suffered a thoracic aortic aneurysm dissection. A weak spot in the biggest artery in my body — the one in which oxygenated blood flows from the heart to nourish the rest of the body — had given out and I was slowly dying.

Within an hour, I was on a helicopter headed for UPMC Shadyside. A surgical team met me in the operating room in the early hours of the morning. They quickly sawed open my chest, stitched a Dacron patch around my aorta and closed me back up.

I’m told the patch should last a lifetime.

We’ve since learned that this condition tends to run in families. Doctors don’t know exactly what gene or genes hold the key to it, but they’ve seen patterns sufficient to raise red flags. In my case, it has emerged over the past 20 years as first my youngest son was diagnosed with an enlarged aorta and more recently as both my mother and her older sister had to have surgery for thoracic aortic aneurysms in their early 80s.

My surgeon assured me my heart was strong and I would recover quickly.

Four days later, I was back home. Within six weeks, I was able to complete a 5K around the track beside the Aerobic Center in Greensburg.

But as I said earlier, I’ll be wearing red this Friday. I’m aware that no one is invincible.

I had a sister who knew how heart issues manifested in women. We all should be so lucky.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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