The Lady and the Heart Attack

I had the pain for about a month–tightness in the chest,breathlessness after climbing stairs I used to run up, stomach ache, a sharp tingling down my left arm.
Since it was bothersome, I complained a few times. People said things like:

“Maybe it’s from all the dust in your house.” (We’re knocking down a big wall.)

“You’re stressed or having a panic attack.” (Work has been incredibly stressful and bizarre. Plus, I’ve somehow suddenly gotten some speaking gigs.)

“You’re always picking up/carrying heavy stuff.” (Re: the wall above.)

“Maybe you’re having a heart attack.”
I considered all of these except the final entry. It seemed far-fetched, too dramatic. After a weeks, though, the pain forced me to my doctor. My EKG was normal. He sent me to get chest x-rays and an echo-cardiogram. I walked home from the lab stopping about every ten feet to collapse against some fence to catch my breath. Two days later I called his office. His receptionist said he wasn’t available. She said if my tests were abnormal he’d call me. He never called me.
I continued on with my life for the next few weeks but took to using an inhaler when I became breathless, klonopin when I suddenly felt my chest was bursting with anxiety, and an ice pack when my arm hurt too much.
Then last Thursday, during a perfectly nice lunch at work, my arm began to throb so badly I jumped up and shook it hard. My chest didn’t hurt, even after the three flights of stairs back to the office. One of my friends commented, “sure, it’s dust making your arm hurt.” By the time I drove home, the pain had drifted away. Sleep came easily.
Until about two a.m. I woke up already curled in pain. Obviously this was a panic attack. I began to breathe in deep and slow, then swallowed two klonopin. Afraid to disturb my husband, I slipped away into another room to read a book. But I couldn’t concentrate, the pain so great I felt I had to move to keep it somehow from possessing me. Finally, the klonopin kicked in and I crashed into sleep. The next morning, I woke up druggy and feeling weird, out of sorts, not myself. I managed to go through the day working, cleaning two rooms of the heavy dust in the house and walking a mile to a store and a mile back, stopping at several street benches to catch my breath. Later, I called my husband to tell him I was too exhausted to cook dinner, something I had never said to him before even through the usual bugs, colds, and labor pains. This time, though, not only was I tired, I was nauseous and my back began to hurt.

But it wasn’t a heart attack, I told myself. Why would it be when I’m fairly young.  I don’t smoke and am reasonably healthy and fit. Two hours later, after my husband drove me to the emergency room, I even laughed at the cardiologist when he held the EKG strip, showed us the deep upside down peaks to show how bad my heart was. He asked all the usual questions about risk factors and, as far as I knew, I didn’t have any.  But there was one thing:  For six months my primary doctor and psychiatrist had been arguing over a med that may increase cholesterol. Mine was 600, which seemed to me a big problem. While their discussion went on, neither did anything preventative, such as take me off or put me on anything else.

(My EKG showing my heart attack)

In any case, it didn’t matter. Two nurses pushed my bed at Indy 500 speed through the hallways into an elevator and smack into the operating room filled where three nurses waited, their Friday night having been interrupted as soon as my first EKG was taken. One of them didn’t bother to change from basketball shorts and a t-shirt that read “I am Anonymous.” The stent slipped in without a hitch, clearing the 99% clog in my left anterior descending artery, a fairly common heart attack when everything is said and done.

Except that I was a woman who didn’t believe she could have a heart attack. For the last month or two, I combed through the internet coming upon all kinds of symptoms often attached to discussions about the different signs between men and women. The thing was, the part about the man was always at the top and I didn’t always read to the bottom. So too, my symptoms came and went, sometimes for days on end. That absence made it easier to believe the returning pain was little more than a dust attack or a pulled muscle from the 45 pound ceiling fan I lugged to the car. It surely was anxiety–even a panic attack. It was the chicken curry I made the night before. You don’t go to the emergency room for chicken curry or for lugging a ceiling fan. Plus, I had things to do.

Only recently has there been public warnings about how women heart attack symptoms are more subtle, more varied, easier to ignore through busy lives. More women than men suffer heart attacks but that fact still somehow has trouble settling into our thoughts. Maybe it’s because men and women look and deal with pain differently. Women are conditioned to their bodies aching from our first menstrual cramp onward. Through all those hurting weeks I often considered that  labor pains had been far worse. We may go to the doctors more than men, keep our regular check ups, our gynecologist appointments, but we seem to not consider that searing pain could be life threatening. It’s too much a part of our lives, not enough to slow us down or to think too much about what the cause may be. There are many people I take care care of–starting with my husband, children, friends, pets, and family–and don’t consider myself  at all. So how could my life be in danger? There was never a moment when I dramatically clutched my heart. I merely rubbed my arm across my chest and went on with whatever I was doing at the time.

I need to tell you this: The days in the ICU were not fun.The confusion and despair on my families’ faces were unimaginable. The struggle right now to regain my strength and emotional equilibrium, not to mention the annoyance to obey a mandatory stillness, which I am in no way conditioned to so,  is the most formidable task I have ever faced.  And that is saying something, indeed. Most of all though, there is the coming to terms with how easy it is to die when you’re not paying attention to what your body is telling you.

So study this diagram and if you feel any of this is familiar, forget whatever else is going on in your life, and take care of yourself.

women heart attack

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pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at

One thought on “The Lady and the Heart Attack”

  1. I want to “like” this post, but I don’t like you having a heart attack, ya know, so I’m not going to. Instead, I will just “like” the fact that you are resting, writing things you actually care about, and coming to grips with the knowledge that dust does not inflict pain in our limbs.


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