Three women, one heart attack and a sound asleep husband

This post written by Susan Bengivingo RN* was first published on Women’s College Hospital’s Women’s Health Matters site, where I was happy to discover it so I could share it here with you:


“It was around midnight. My hospital colleague Donna Stairs and I had got the patients settled down for the night, and we were having a well-earned cup of coffee when the buzzer rang.

“The buzzer is there because our hospital is locked up at night. Visitors from the city find it strange to lock a hospital at night but it’s a security issue in rural areas like Strathmore, Alberta. We don’t have guards – just a couple of nurses!

“I went and looked out and there was a young woman, in her late 20s or early 30s, I would guess. She was wearing a long raincoat and had slippers on her feet. Let’s call her Mary.  So I buzzed the door open and she was very apologetic.

“I have a terrible pain in my shoulder,” Mary said. “And I’m feeling nauseous.” 

“She said the pain had been getting more intense over the last four hours.

“Probably it’s the flu,” she said. “I’m feeling sorry now bothering you like this….”

“She’d been out with her husband and had dinner and a couple of drinks. Then they’d gone home and had sex. He’d fallen asleep, but she stayed awake feeling worse and worse.

“The fact that the pain had been getting progressively worse over four hours and that it followed exercise – sex, in this case – made me feel it was something cardiac.

“Mary told me later that she thought no way could she be having a heart attack. She was pre-menopausal; didn’t her hormones protect her?

“So she’d just slipped out of the house without telling anybody and drove herself over. That meant we didn’t have the stressed-out family to deal with – just the stressed-out patient and her stressed-out nurses!

“Donna and I got Mary on a stretcher, filled out the outpatient forms (there are no admitting clerks at night), asked her a few questions, took her vital signs, put her on oxygen and quickly did an EKG. I thanked our lucky stars that Donna was available to help and not dealing with some emergency at the other side of the hospital.

“The EKG showed Mary was having a heart attack. Donna immediately phoned the family doctor on duty (in rural facilities, the doctor on call is usually at home – not in the hospital).

“I gave Mary an aspirin to chew and a sublingual nitroglycerin, began drawing blood for the lab, started the IV and then got busy preparing the drugs I knew we’d need. I remember thinking how fortunate we are in Strathmore to receive support for certification in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support).

“We had decided she would need IV nitroglycerin to deal with the pain, heparin to thin the blood, and a thrombolytic drug (TPA) to dissolve any blood clot that might be blocking an artery and causing her heart attack.

Dr. Joni McNeely, the duty doctor, arrived quickly. She immediately assessed the patient, looked at the EKG and gave the orders for IV nitroglycerin, heparin and TPA. She then phoned Calgary to make arrangements for transferring Mary to the city.

“We had Mary’s thrombolytic up and running within half an hour of her admission, which is within the recommended door-to-needle time.

“We were ahead of the game at this point because the EKG was easy to interpret and clearly indicated a heart attack. Sometimes we have to fax EKG readings to Calgary for confirmation from a cardiologist!

“Of course, it took a while to get a hospital that could take her and to call up our ambulance to make the transfer. Meanwhile,  I was photocopying Mary’s EKGs and her admission forms.

“Mary was in our Emergency Department for two hours before the ambulance took her to Calgary. The thrombolytic was over by that time. The ambulance doesn’t like to transport patients undergoing thrombolysis because it’s difficult to deal with problems like reperfusion arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats that can be fatal) while bumping along the highway.

“As Mary was lifted into the ambulance, I asked her: “Do you want me to phone your husband?”

“I’d better do that myself,” she said, and she smiled. I thought that smile was a good sign.

“In Calgary, Mary was whisked into the Coronary Care Unit. She underwent coronary  angioplasty. We could give ourselves a pat on the back because we had got her stabilized and had administered drug therapy in time to stop the progression of her heart attack. That meant we had saved a lot of heart muscle – and effectively saved Mary.

“I hope her husband wasn’t too shocked when she phoned him!

“I remember Mary, because she could so easily have been a statistic in the mortality tables. If she hadn’t come to us for help, she might have died.

“As it is, I saw her last Thursday out shopping in Strathmore with her two youngest kids!

Some women think they shouldn’t call an ambulance when they have chest pain or feel unwell. They are afraid that when they get to the hospital, we will laugh at them or get mad.


“Come with your chest pain!

“It is a million times better to come in with pain than to stay away. And you should remember too that heart attacks in women don’t necessarily have the same symptoms as they do in men. You may not even feel chest pain. This really is an issue you need to discuss with your family doctor, especially if you have any risk factors for heart disease.

“Finally I’d like to say I love this job of mine! I love the excitement, the opportunity it gives me to meet a lot of wonderful people, and the feeling of being able to do some good in this world.”


* I’m sad to tell you that Susan Bengivingo, who wrote this story, died on March 15, 2105 in the same hospital where she had cared for so many others.  My sincere condolences to her family. (See comments below from her husband Rick and brother-in-law Randy). Sue was a registered nurse for over 40 years in Alberta. The Strathmore hospital she wrote about here is typical of the primary care centres upon which rural Canadians depend. The hospital has 20 inpatient beds, a labour and delivery bed, an emergency department, and lab and X-ray services.  And very dedicated nurses!


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   You’ll find much more about why women tend to wait longer for cardiac care than our male counterparts in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press). You can ask for it at your library or favourite bookshop (please support your local independent booksellers) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).

See also:

The heart patient’s chronic lament: “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a bother…”

Getting help during a heart attack: ‘delayers’ vs ‘survivors’

How women can tell if they’re headed for a heart attack

How does it really feel to have a heart attack? Women survivors tell their stories


14 thoughts on “Three women, one heart attack and a sound asleep husband

  1. I have read this earlier but never felt strong enough to say anything as it seemed so unreal to me. How did this happen? Why? Just let me wake up! But sadly and very emotionally I deal with the pain every day with this loss of the greatest person I ever knew and loved.

    Sue has left a terrific legacy and I have met so many of her brothers and sisters in arms, all of whom earned their stripes many times over. I thank you all for being so connected to Sue and sharing all her strength and wisdom with me and her profession.

    Thank you Carolyn for this story as it helps me more than you can imagine, giving me more of the strength I need to move forward and to remember Sue’s accomplishments and dedication to what she so loved doing!!

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Rick, for taking the time to share your thoughts about Sue. I loved this story she told, as it really captures the incredible competence and caring that she brought to her career.

      As patients, we can only dream of meeting a nurse just like Sue when we are in trouble. She did indeed leave a legacy both professionally and for all those whose lives she touched. You must be so proud of her.

      My condolences to you and your family on such a great loss.


  2. Sue is my sister-in-law. Sadly she passed away last night after a courageous battle with cancer. Sue was a nurse in Alberta for over 40 years; she and her husband Rick had been together since high school and Sue had just become a grandma for the second time.

    Yesterday we lost an amazing woman. Sue will be terribly missed.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Carolyn, thanks so much for sharing this article. I’ve shared the link with the family and it’s helping us all to see a little bit of Sue ‘the nurse’. She loved nursing and would always say “it ain’t work if you love what you’re doing!”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Randy, we could tell a lot about Sue’s ‘take-charge’ competence and dedication to her nursing profession just by reading this story, which is why I wanted to share it here.

          The other really important part of this story is that she encouraged women to seek emergency care for heart symptoms (“Come with your chest pain!”) and warned us not to be reluctant to come to hospital worrying we’d be making a fuss over nothing. This is a critically important message that even some physicians in big city hospitals are not getting, which is why women continue to be under-diagnosed in mid-heart attack, and under-treated even when appropriately diagnosed.

          I know that the many Alberta patients she cared for over 40 years will be forever grateful that Sue was in their lives during their medical crises.


    1. I was fortunate and honoured to have worked with Sue in the CVICU. I have worked with many nurses in my career and can honestly say I have never met a more dedicated nurse than Sue, she was a real gem.

      Will miss you dearly, Sue.


  3. I have a great deal of respect for rural hospitals and their ability to handle cardiac patients. I am very thankful because my best friend is a Canadian and it was those conditions that she passed through that saved her life. This was truly a very touching story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Robin – nice to hear from you again. You are so right about rural hospitals – those of us who live in cities with major heart institutes handy (as I do) can’t even imagine what it’s like for patients in less-well-equipped sites where every cardiac emergency means being evacuated to a larger centre. Traumatic for the patient, and on the patient’s family.


  4. Thank gosh Mary is okay. Susan and Donna are heroes 🙂

    I always tell my family and partner that no matter how “silly” they may think their symptoms are, always best to get it checked. I’d rather look silly than be dead!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Allison Peacock
    1. I know! Love the part where the two nurses had already decided on the need for immediate IV nitroglycerin, heparin and TPA before the doctor even arrived. Reminded me of my years in hospice palliative care when nurses would often be two steps ahead of on-call docs in terms of pain management protocol knowledge and experience. Nurses rock!


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