The unforgettable diagnosis: “You’re having a heart attack!”

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

Jennifer Donelan was a 36-year old television news reporter for ABC News 7 in Washington, DC, covering a dramatic story one day about a local 4-month old baby girl who had been found in her crib, unresponsive. After her live shot on the 5 o’clock newscast, Jennifer was waiting near her car when she started to feel a very strange pain in her chest. We pick up her dramatic story there, as told in Jennifer’s own words:

“I remember looking at my car and thinking: ‘I need to go home and lay down.’ Then the pain started to worsen. I took a few steps and my left arm went numb. 

“I turned around to my two co-workers and told them that I didn’t feel well. They asked me what was wrong, and I told them my symptoms. My photographer asked if I wanted him to take me to the hospital. I said no, because if I was going to go to the hospital, I wanted to go in by ambulance.  I sat down on the floor of the live truck.

“At this point, I was sweating profusely. I yelled at my co-workers to call 911 and to call my motherI fell to my knees, and I began to vomit. I was having trouble breathing because of this pain in my chest. I heard my co-worker tell the 911 dispatcher that I was having trouble breathing, and I corrected him immediately. I said:

“Tell them I have pain in my chest! Tell them my left arm hurts!”

“My other photographer got off the phone with my Mom, and said to me:

“Your mother says it’s probably a panic attack, and she says she loves you very much!”

“Her words of love immediately brought my mind back from a dark place. I didn’t want to die. DC firefighters showed up within two minutes. One held my hand, while the other put an IV in my right arm. The paramedics arrived just moments later. With the help of firefighters, I stood up and they gently walked me to the ambulance. One paramedic remained in the back of the ambulance with me. He began to treat me for chest pain, despite the fact I was so young and a woman. I am and will be forever grateful to him.

“I was panicking! I was all over the place. I just couldn’t get comfortable. The pain in my chest would not stop. The baby aspirin and nitro pills weren’t working. I started to say the Lord’s prayer to myself. My grandparents have all passed. I miss them horribly, and I prayed to them now:

“I don’t want to see you right now. I love you, but please don’t let me see you right now!”

“The EKG in the ambulance was normal. I was confused. I feared it was a heart attack, but it couldn’t be. I was way too young. The EKG reading made me wonder, maybe I am wrong, but the pain in the chest persisted and my fear worsened. It was rush hour in the DC area, and I was miles away from our go-to cardiac care hospital.

“Because the paramedic treated me for possible cardiac arrest, he called it in despite the negative EKG, and so a specific treatment protocol kicked in. The ambulance was told to take me to the cardiac hospital and a cardiac care team was waiting for me when we got there.

“They wheeled me into the Emergency Room. The doctors asked me about my symptoms, and I explained the chest and the left arm pain. I kept vomiting through tears that just wouldn’t stop. I told the doctors I smoked cigarettes, and I knew this could be really bad.

“I was hooked to an EKG. This time I got the news I’ll never forget. The young female doctor looked into my eyes and said:

“You are having a heart attack and everything from here is going to be happening very fast.”

“I couldn’t believe it! I prayed. I cried. I didn’t want to die. Meanwhile my family phone tree had been activated. My aunt who lives in the city closest to the hospital was parking her car in the hospital garage. The doctors called a “code heart.” It rang throughout the building. My nurse had my cellphone. I can’t remember who called who, but she talked to my aunt and told her I had just coded.

“My aunt told me she ran from the parking lot. Just as the nurses were about to take me from the ER, my aunt appeared and I started crying profusely. I told her that I loved her. She said the nurses threw my belongings at her and raced me down the hall to the cath lab.

“I was now in a room with monitors and nurses and doctors who were covered head to toe in surgical gear. They moved my body to the table. I heard another patient in the distance moaning. Then the team of nurses and doctors gathered. I heard them say my name. It was like a football team in a huddle preparing for battle. The doctor came to my side and put his hand on my shoulder. I told him:

“It hurts so much.”

“I can’t remember what he said, but he was so gentle. For the first time since the pain began, I felt safe, but just for a moment. The nurses pushed some medicine into my IV, shaved some hair on the left side of my groin area and began to thread tubes into my body.

“I was in twilight. I didn’t understand what was happening, but they said they wanted to look at my heart. I was in a haze. My head swiveled from side to side. I saw the monitors, which looked like a series of veins. Something that looked like a fish hook was moving around the screen through the veins. I later learned my doctor was trying to rid my artery of blood clots that had formed.

“At one point, the pain worsened and I said to the doctor: “It’s getting worse!” He calmly said: “Just give me a moment . . “ and then, suddenly, the pain was gone.

“I cannot explain what a moment that was. The pain stopped just as abruptly as it had begun. The nurses told me my whole family was waiting down in the ER. I asked them to send in my mother and my brother. When I saw my mom, I cried and hugged her, and then I hugged my brother. His eyes were filled with tears.

“The doctors explained that my right coronary artery had torn. I had suffered something called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, or SCAD. When it tore, the blood in the artery started to clot, and my body was trying to fix the tear.

“I later saw the video of my cardiac catheterization. No blood supply was getting through that artery to feed the heart muscle. The cardiologist had aspirated the blood and put two stainless steel stents at the site of the tear.

“My life since that day has and still is an ever-evolving process of learning how to live my second chance. I am writing this exactly 10 months afterwards, to the day – a day for which I am eternally grateful to God, to my family, to my dear friends, to the firefighters, paramedics, nurses, doctors, and co-workers who were with me through this nightmare. These are people I will never ever be able to fully thank for saving my life and helping me live my life again.”

♥   ♥   ♥

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) that caused Jennifer’s heart attack is sometimes referred to as “rare”, but Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes now describes this condition as “underdiagnosed” or “infrequent”, especially when discussing heart attacks in younger women. (Mayo Clinic recently saw three SCAD cases in one day, one acute and two as outpatient consultations). Tragically, 80% of SCAD victims are young, healthy women like Jennifer with few if any cardiac risk factors.

If you are a patient who’s been diagnosed with SCAD, please consider participating in two new SCAD studies being undertaken by Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Find out if you are eligible to participate.

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2 thoughts on “The unforgettable diagnosis: “You’re having a heart attack!”

  1. Perfect. As I read this I cried, remembering my own pain, fear, prayers and thankfulness for the people who reacted quickly and with gentleness and love. I was thankful for the ER nurses who acted so quickly, the EMT who rode to the cardiac hospital with me and held my hand, my surgical nurses who were so gentle and soothing when I was so scared, cold and alone, and the ICU nurses who took care of me that night and into the next few days as I struggled to deal with what had happened to me.

    I was 39 years old and until the day I leave this earth I will never forget them. Thank you for the reminder.


    1. Hello Marisha and thanks for sharing your own experience here. Those who care for us with skill and kindness during such traumatic events are angels!


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