Here’s why it’s so important to call for an ambulance immediately if you think you might be having a heart attack. A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) is the death of heart muscle from the sudden blockage of a coronary artery.
This blockage deprives your heart muscle – or myocardium – of blood and oxygen. If blood flow is not restored to your heart muscle within 20-40 minutes, irreversible death of the muscle will begin to occur. Muscle continues to die for 6-8 hours, at which time your heart attack will be described as ‘complete’. Depending on how much heart muscle is damaged, disability or death can result.
But if you actually do live through this, your dead heart muscle will eventually be replaced by scar tissue. So as you can imagine, every minute counts.
Time equals muscle. Immediate medical intervention – preferably within the first hour of onset of symptoms – is aimed at quickly restoring blood flow to the heart muscle to prevent or minimize this permanent damage. Tragically, women typically wait longer with serious symptoms before seeking help – one reason that women’s cardiac outcomes are more deadly than men’s.
Another reason is that, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, women are up to seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack and sent home from Emergency Departments compared to our male counterparts.*
When you’re admitted to hospital, blood tests are used to determine the extent of damage to your heart muscle by measuring levels of certain cardiac enzymes. Doctors look for:
- cardiac troponin T and I – elevated troponin levels are specific to a heart injury; troponin levels typically begin to rise 2-6 hours after a heart attack for men, and over time within 10-24 hours for women. Elevated levels can still be detected a week or more after the onset of chest pain.
- creatinine phosphokinase (CPK or CK) – typically increase to above-normal levels about 4-6 hours after a heart attack and may remain elevated for up to 48 hours afterwards
All of these are enzymes released into the blood by your dying heart muscles whose surrounding membranes have dissolved.
High levels confirm diagnosis of a heart attack. Cardiac enzyme tests are often repeated over several hours for comparison. Practice guidelines recommend that blood samples for these tests are drawn every 8-12 hours for 1-2 days after a suspected heart attack.
This is not what happened to me, by the way.
I was discharged from the Emergency Department just five hours after I presented with textbook heart attack symptoms of chest pain, nausea, sweating and pain radiating down my left arm. Both blood tests (administered at about two and four hours post-admission) showed “normal” troponins. Five hours later, I was back home, misdiagnosed with GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease).
What should have happened, instead of sending me home with this acid reflux misdiagnosis and a pat on the head?
I should have been ordered to return to the lab for more blood tests for the next 1-2 days as treatment guidelines dictates.
Recently, a woman in one of my heart health presentations told me of her experience in Emergency for an unrelated medical issue, where she overheard a conversation between the (male) doctor and the (male) patient behind the curtain in the neighbouring bed. The doctor told the patient:
“Your EKG is fine. All your blood tests are fine. But we’re going to keep you for observation just to make sure it’s not your heart.”
Thus yet another man is treated according to practice guidelines, while women continue to be misdiagnosed and sent home in mid-heart attack.
© Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
* Pope JH, Aufderheide TP, Ruthazer R, et al. Missed diagnoses of acute cardiac ischemia in the emergency department. N Engl J Med. 2000;342:1163-1170.
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