The weirdness of Post-Heart Attack Stun

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Jodi JacksonI‘m laughing right out loud as I type this post, although I am the last person you’d think would ever laugh at another person’s heart attack story.  Usually. . .  But I love Jodi Jackson’s concept of “Post-Heart Attack Stun” – and I just had to laugh at her delicious examples of this concept at work, both during and after her heart attack at age 42.

Although I didn’t realize until I read about Jodi that there was even an official name for this cardiology concept, I sure knew what she was talking about.   

Post-Heart Attack Stun is what Jodi calls the period following a heart attack where everything seems so surreal that you really don’t absorb what has just happened.   

In fact, I suspect that the Stun can strike even before you’re officially diagnosed. 

I now believe that I was Stunned for two entire weeks after being sent home from the ER with an acid reflux misdiagnosis – despite my textbook heart attack symptoms of chest pain, nausea and pain radiating down my left arm. Two endless weeks later, I could no longer stand the increasingly unbearable symptoms (but hey! at least I knew it wasn’t my heart, because a man with the letters MD after his name had told me quite clearly “It is NOT your heart!”).  I was finally hospitalized with the same diagnostic assessment that Jodi heard:  the widowmaker heart attack”.

Jodi started showing the first signs of Stun on the afternoon of October 13, 2011 at her home near Kansas City.

”   That day, I started feeling bad on the way home from work.  In retrospect, by the time I got home I knew I was really sick.  Trying to deny it, I changed clothes and took the dog out.”

It turns out that changing out of your work clothes and taking the dog out is a fairly common reaction in women experiencing a heart attack. So is driving the kids to soccer, finishing that report, baking a birthday cake for the party, or flying to Ottawa. Women apparently believe that all these activities and more are appropriate when you think you might be having a frickety-frackin’ heart attack.

In Jodi’s case, however, she knew by the time she got back into the house with the dog that she needed to call an ambulance because of the unusual heaviness in her chest and the searing pain in her entire lower jaw.

She put the dog in her crate, and called 911. She was told to chew an aspirin and swallow it while she waited for the ambulance. That’s when the Stun hit again:

   “The ambulance arrived, and my husband who was out of town called about then.  I told him I couldn’t talk because the paramedics were there and I hung up the phone.

“But I did call him back to let him know not to worry that I was going to the hospital with chest pain.”

She describes the scene in front of her home as she was loaded into the ambulance:

“Every cop in town along with the paramedics were out in front of my house with their lights going.  This means that the entire neighborhood was outside trying to figure out what was going on at our house.”

Because women are born multi-taskers even in the middle of having a heart attack, Jodi decided to check her purse while lying in the back of the ambulance.

”   I look down at my purse and what do I see?  It of course is my week to have the on-call work phone.  If it rings and I don’t pick up the message, it rolls its way to everyone’s phone numbers above me, all the way up to the top. 

“So  I ask the paramedics if I can make calls from the ambulance.  I call my co-worker to come and get the phone from me at the hospital.”

The ambulance arrived at the hospital, and Jodi reports that this is when she realized the paramedics had been lying to her:

“They told me I was probably just having angina.  They wheel me in and there are 25 people waiting on me – fortunately, it was a fabulous cardiac team.  My blood pressures was 200/120. Right then, I probably knew that it was serious.  The doc takes one look at the heart monitor and says: ‘This is the real McCoy.  You are having a heart attack and we are going to surgery right now.’ 

“Someone puts a consent form in front of me and asks me if I will sign it.  Like I am going to say no? So I sign it. 

“About then, the co-worker I called to come get the phone arrives. I say to her:

‘I’m having a heart attack – the phone is in my purse.” 

“She looks at me, as stunned as I think I look. I remember saying to her: ‘Don’t feel like you have to stay.” 

“She looked at me like I had lost my mind, and said of course she was staying!”

It was much later, once Jodi was safely in the ICU after having three stainless steel stents implanted in her fully occluded Left Anterior Descending Coronary Artery, that the Post-Heart Attack Stun really hit hard. Here’s how she describes this phenomenon:

“In the ICU, there was lots of talking from the doctors and the nurses. I really didn’t absorb much of it. Quite honestly, I could hardly believe I’d had a heart attack. I most certainly could not absorb the seriousness of the situation. It was much like I would envision an out-of-body experience.

“It was hard to absorb any of it because although I knew I’d had a heart attack, I didn’t feel like it. The symptoms I had experienced were nothing like what I thought a heart attack would be. I never lost consciousness… Hell, they didn’t even give me anything more than Valium and Versed during my procedure. I watched it all on the flat screens.

“To me, this is not the picture of a massive heart attack. I think of a heart attack as the “Hollywood Heart Attack” – clutching your chest and falling to the floor. This was just not my experience.”

Jodi realized as well that her friends and family were also having an equally hard time absorbing all of this.  Perhaps Post-Heart Attack Stun is contagious and can actually spread to your loved ones?

Jodi explains:

“On that day, after all my family had gone home, I was alone in the hospital room at about 10 p.m. I called my longtime friend Deb, and this is how our conversation went:

Deb: “Hey, what are you up to?”

Me: “I just had a heart attack.”

Deb: “Over what?”

Me: “Seriously, I just had a heart attack and I just got out of the cath lab. I’m in the ICU.”

Deb: Stunned silence.

See?  Even her friend Deb became a victim of Post-Heart Attack Stun.

As it happens, women are notorious for Stunned thinking during their cardiac events, often willing to continue in denial for dangerously long  periods of time while tolerating intolerable cardiac symptoms – instead of doing what they should do: call 911 for immediate medical help!

We laugh knowingly while watching Elizabeth Banks‘ portrayal in her Just A Little Heart Attack film of a harried mother who is set firmly on Stun while trying to get her family and herself out the door in the  morning despite her severe heart attack symptoms. She even asks her worried son:

“Honey, do I look like the kind of person who has a heart attack?”

When I talk about female heart patients’ documented treatment-seeking delay behaviour patterns during my Heart Smart Women presentations, the audiences invariably laugh and cringe at the same time. We all recognize these familiar patterns: it’s probably nothing, we don’t want to make a fuss or embarrass ourselves, we have far more important things to do right now, and maybe we’ll get help later on – because everybody else’s needs come first.

I vividly remember the very moment when my own frightening heart symptoms first hit, while I was out on my 6:30 a.m. daily walk one Monday morning in 2008. My symptoms were so awful that I had to lean against a nearby tree; my first spontaneous thought was:

“This better not be a heart attack – because I do NOT have time for this today!”

 Jodi’s need to call her co-worker to make sure the on-call phone was successfully taken care of while she’s otherwise occupied having a heart attack is both hilarious and perfectly understandable to most über-responsible women.

It’s part taking care of business, part denial, part Post-Heart Attack Stun.

Here’s a health scare scenario from Mayo Clinic that may seem familiar to the recently Stunned:

“After a traumatic event has occurred, you might need several days or weeks to fully process what has happened and come to grips with the challenges ahead.

“This type of denial can be a helpful response to stressful information. You initially deny the distressing problem. As your mind absorbs it, however, you can come to approach it more rationally over time.”

It’s even acceptable to say something like:

“I just can’t think about all of this right now.”

Sometimes, we just don’t want to believe any of this is really happening, which makes it even easier for Post-Heart Attack Stun to set in.

I first encountered Jodi Jackson’s Stun concept in her guest post published on Jen Thorson‘s My Life In Red blog. Thanks, Jen!

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   My book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease reads like a “best of Heart Sisters blog” collection. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

39 thoughts on “The weirdness of Post-Heart Attack Stun

  1. Carolyn, I see I need to read far more on your blog before talking/writing more. As I said, newbies are so much work.

    I was lucky: I did NOT have the heart attack. They got the 95% blockage stented, finally, on the third catheterization, and I avoided the heart attack and the damage.

    I was in the hospital nine days in two ER admissions in NJ with an overnight stay, and the rest in PA – rather chaotic for someone like me. I thought I had esophageal spasms – I had coughed with two different viruses for 13 weeks, sometimes quite violently, right before all this started. They released me with no stents after the first admission – so I could find a way to deal with the certified-by-the-surgeon NON-cardiac pain – and pursue the esophageal spasm theory. I even saw a gastro guy IN the hospital before leaving. He talked about doing some barium swallow testing – I got him to agree to try medication for the spasms first. (Bossy me.)

    I’m definitely STILL in post-whatever you call this-stun. No-heart-attack-stun?

    Just a matter of time, I’m sure, it would have been to an actual heart attack.

    Ten months stun period someone wrote in a comment? I’m freaking out with less than 30 days (this happened Feb. 5-22). You may stop laughing now.


  2. I didn’t want to leave my warm bed and furry cat. It was New Year’s Eve, two weeks ago. I felt bad, vomited, had a pain in the center of my chest. So I went on to sleep. I woke up early Sunday morning, New Year’s Day, about 5:00 am, vomited again. This time the pain was down both arms, as well as the center of the chest. I told my husband, “Let’s go!”

    I grabbed my robe and coat, grabbing my chest all the way to the hospital. All I could say when I walked in was: “Chest pain!” and I was whisked away in a wheelchair to a large ER room and given an EKG, despite still vomiting. The technician handed the printout to the nurse, saying “You need to see this.” Suddenly the room filled with ten more people, each had a special duty, hurrying but calm on the surface. My arms became pincushions, I swallowed aspirin, nitroglycerin, and morphine, and signed releases; I kissed my husband ‘goodbye’ and tore off my rings and clothes.

    A minute later I was rushed to the Cath Lab, the coldest place on Earth, to have a stent place into the Right Coronary Artery which was 100% blocked. Then a little A-fib set in and I had to be shocked. I woke up going to my room in Cardiac ICU.
    A Texas Grandmother,
    Diana, Age 70, Abilene

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a heart attack at age 53, I am 66 now. I should probably go to the hospital now! I’m having right arm and shoulder pain right now. I was at Kroger & picked up a gal of water & had very bad shoulder pain, couldn’t hardly use my right arm, it really hurt bad. That was Thursday & it’s now Sat. Its been hurting since! When I had one before I had pain in both arms & shoulders. Also very very nauseous! Also was in a cold sweat bad!


    1. Hello Naomi – I’m not a physician so of course cannot comment specifically on your symptoms. I can tell you generally however that many women have told me that the symptoms of their first heart attack were not necessarily the same for future cardiac events. If you have not already done so, call your doctor. Right now, you just do not know if your symptoms are heart-related or not, but something is causing them and you need to find out what. Good luck to you…


  4. I can relate to this! I didn’t have a heart attack, but I found out that I had congestive heart failure and would need a heart surgery. I actually FORGOT that I had any heart problem at all, and had to ask my husband what was going on with me, because I honestly couldn’t remember!

    I chalked it up to some kind of post-tramautic stress, and I am so glad to see that other women have experienced denial about these kinds of things, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article! I really like this blog post. Thanks for sharing your personal experience! Who would of thought that changing out of your work clothes and taking the dog out is a fairly common reaction in women experiencing a heart attack. lol


  6. Tomorrow it will be 8 weeks since an unknown Cardiologist (unknown by me anyway) saved my life. I’m having a hard time dealing with this. Family is no help. The day after being released from the hospital the Husband wanted to know what I was making for dinner. He’s lucky it wasn’t him 🙂

    One good thing I do remember my Dr. telling me before I went home – He said “If anyone asks you what happened – Just tell them you had a GOOD Heart Attack” and he winked at me! I will always be forever in his debt…


    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Kim. You are in VERY early days yet – no wonder you are still having a hard time. I hope you have been referred to cardiac rehabilitation – if you haven’t, call your doctor as soon as possible and get a referral to attend a program near you. I also want you to go shopping for a copy of Dr. Wayne Sotile’s excellent book “Thriving With Heart Disease” – I found it so helpful after returning home from hospital. It may be out of print – look online or in used bookshops. Here’s the first of a four-part excerpt to get you started on that. You can read the good parts out loud to hubby. Best of luck to you!


      1. Kim–I agree with Carolyn–go to rehab.

        Also, I got involved with the Go Red for Women campaign through the American Heart Association Kansas City chapter. Look for the AHA in your area or see if you can find your local chapter of Women Heart. Getting involved with women that knew what I was going through helped me tremendously! I wish I would have done it sooner!

        Good luck!


    1. Jodi! Thanks so much for stopping by – I was hoping you would, so you could read the wonderful comments in response to your story. Thanks again for allowing me to re-tell it here. Take care….


  7. Pingback: Her Bad Mother
  8. On 19 october it will be exactly 30 years ago that I was for the second time having an exercise stress test.

    (For about half a year I had had a burning in my chest and a bad feeling in my breast by walking uphill by our weekly walking tours (about 20- 25 km/ day). Because my family doctor had not found any abnormalities in my EKG, I was sent to a therapist (he called it: housewife´s syndrome ). At 37 years, he said, I was too young to have a heart disease. He actually laughed at me.

    The exercise stress test was done on a stationary bike. After a while the nurse took the phone and was whispering something. Two doctors came running and began to discuss my EKG traces. –Do you feel something? Pain? Not a pain but I have an odd feeling in my chest. –Stop biking. You must have had three silent heart attacks. We must send you to another hospital for further examinations.

    But it´s my husband´s birthday. We will get friends to visit and I have prepared a meal. – If you want to celebrate birthdays in the future, you better go to the hospital!

    I want to drive home to pack my bag. I have driven here, so I can drive home, too.

    So I did.

    After the heart cath, they told me I will die if I do not have two bypasses. 8 Dec 1983 I got 3 bypasses. At that time there was a waiting list for bypass operations.

    The surgeon told me after the operation, my heart had looked like the one of an 80-year old woman.

    In the rehab, a doctor told me: I give you 10 years more to live. At that time I did not tell anybody of this presage. I really forgot it for years.

    I have learned that my heart can stand more than I ever could imagine.

    Kind regards, Carolyn. You are so clever in finding new topics. How are you feeling?


    1. Thanks so much Mirjami. I love your statement: “I have learned that my heart can stand more than I ever could imagine.” I think you win the prize among my readers for 30 years of healthy longevity following triple bypass surgery – despite your rehab doctor’s 10 year prognosis. What a stupid thing to say to you!

      Speaking of stupid, I think you also win the prize for having heard the most outrageous diagnosis from any doctor (“Housewife Syndrome!”) In fact, I included that unique diagnosis in my post called Stupid Things Doctors Say to Heart Patients. Congratulations on surviving what so many do not, and for being such a reassuring role model for the rest of us!

      I’m feeling pretty good, thanks for asking. ♡


  9. I can relate to this as I was worried that I would spoil my girlfriend’s weekend as I had promised to mind her dog while she went to a family birthday party. I kept hesitating to call the ambulance despite the fact I had pain in both sides of my neck and jaw, in my right arm and pressure on my upper chest. It was in the middle of the night but it was later I discovered that the ambos and doctors were surprised I made it.

    After a dramatic few hours, and having to be sedated, I woke in ICU to find my family beside my bed with worried looks on their faces. I felt great but it was some time before I discovered I had a stent inserted.

    I spent the rest of my hospital stay, and even after coming home, going over the whole time from beginning to end, trying to rationalise it all, to accept what happened, and most importantly, accepting the fact I was so close to death it isn’t funny. However it didn’t feel like that.

    Some months later I have come to terms with it all. It all felt so surreal.


      1. I have not yet come to terms with it all, Denise:-( It has been 10 months since the heart attack and stenting and it is still surreal.

        A close friend of 30+ years told me this week-end I was a hypochondriac because I have not accepted what good shape I am in now that I know exactly what my circulatory system is like – as so many healthy people don’t even know about theirs!

        Can you believe this convoluted thinking? Of course I was angry with myself for even confiding my fears.

        I am slowly learning not to talk about my anxieties to many people, but as Dr. Stephen Parker has written: “A heart attack is a deeply wounding event” and for me 10 months has not eliminated the effects of it all.

        What would we do without Carolyn and these wonderful women who comment?


        1. Hi Barbara and thank you for this. That ‘hypochondriac’ comment is one of those conversation-stoppers, for sure. I’m guessing your friend’s never survived a heart attack? I also think you’re so right in carefully picking and choosing who to confide in (and who never to confide in) but it can be valuable to have at least one person – could be a professional therapist – to vent/rant/whine to when absolutely necessary! It can be exhausting keeping that happy-normal-face pasted on 24/7.


          1. You hit the nail on the head with that one. It is the ones you think you are closest to that truly are in denial of your illness and the least supportive, compounding the Stunned state of mind!

            Find that friend who is willing to be a sounding board and who will love you unconditionally without judgement and avoid the rest.


            1. Good advice, Brenda. I suspect that those we’re closest to (e.g. immediate family) are in fact often the least able to be truly supportive no matter how close and loving they may be. They want and more importantly NEED us to be “normal” again so they can stop worrying, more so than in less important relationships.


              1. I do agree.
                Thank you for creating this email system; it is so helpful to be able to share experiences and observations.


            2. I agree that we don’t always know who will be an appropriate confidant. In September, I called a friend of 30 years, an RN, who had many years experience in cardiac ICU. I told her I was in cardiac ICU, with clots on both of my artificial heart valves. My cardiology team was leaning away from trying a clot-busting drug, in favour of surgery to replace both valves: the mitral & the tricuspid, because even with a probable 30% chance of my death with the surgery, it seemed like the better option.

              To cut the tension, I then said, How was your day? To my shock, she started complaining about her week. At that moment, a nurse came into my room. I said to my friend, Sorry, I’ve got to go! and hung up. The nurse told me I didn’t have to hang up, to which I said, Oh yes, I did.

              In the end, the clot-buster was used, & I’m OK. That friendship never will be the same, however.


  10. OH my god, I had atrial fibrillation and my doctor had done an EKG in her office and said you have to go to the hospital immediately. I was going to go home, pack a bag and drive myself. She said ambulance or my husband could take me – I was not driving. I called my husband on his cell phone and then started telling him what had to be done that afternoon for our business. I called my daughter and was giving her instructions. When I got off of my cell phone, my doctor said you need to go to the ER.

    Every time I have an appointment with her she reminds me of that day. She said I couldn’t believe you were on the phone taking care of business and you needed to get to the ER.

    What is it about us that we do this? If that was a family member or friend we would never let them pull stuff like that. I can laugh now, but my blood pressure was near stroke level by the time I got to the ER. I have learned to adjust my Type A Personality big time and make time for me.

    I love your blog and am so glad I found it.


    1. Thanks so much for your kind words about my blog, Michelle. And congrats on learning to adjust that Type A personality. As another heart attack survivor once told me: “I have more balance in my life now – because I have to!”


  11. Well, on the Thursday I was being wheeled into the ER with my worrisome cardiac symptoms, I called my husband. I told him where I was going, and then asked him to contact everyone in my graduate seminar project group, scheduled to meet at our house Saturday morning, and let them know we probably need to reschedule.


    1. Of course you did! Must get all loose ends tidied up no matter what! When my hospital colleagues came to visit me in the CCU after my heart attack, I already had a To Do list for them including: “Tell (our boss) that I won’t be coming in to work tomorrow, but DEFINITELY will be back on the following day!” Duh….


  12. This appeared in Science Daily today, and helps to validate all of this valuable information. EMDR (which is not mentioned here in this article) a form of therapy to deal with trauma, saved my life!


    1. Thanks for this very interesting article, Mary (Psychological Interventions Halve Deaths, Events in Heart Disease Patients). This makes perfect sense to all heart patients: “The addition of psychological support on top of physiological therapies reduces death and cardiovascular events by 55%” – and maybe now that this study’s results have been presented at a cardiac conference, docs will pay attention.

      Mary, I know that EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) has been very successful for you in controlling your cardiac symptoms. Can you share a link with us of what you consider the best overall article to explain the basics of this therapy for those who are not yet familiar with it?

      Thx 🙂


      1. Carolyn, Thank you for asking for more reading material. If you google: New York Times Francine Shapiro, you will find a variety of links, including this one.

        She did a two part column on EMDR. She also authored an excellent book titled GETTING PAST YOUR PAST, aimed at the average person.

        EMDR is a therapy process whereupon a careful history is taken to evaluate your overall situation, past/present. It also makes sure that you are stable enough to handle the emotions, and it helps the certified EMDR therapist decide the pace to process at. The therapeutic process raises the emotions and processes it with bi-lateral stimulation, such as with a windshield wiper-like eye movement, buzzers in each hand, or a light bar for the eyes to follow. This transfers the emotions back and forth across the hemispheres of the brain as the emotions are being relived. Afterward, it is as though they have evaporated. For people who have recent trauma (like that of an MI or angina), it is deemed to be straight trauma.

        For those who have ALSO sustained problems in their lives such as abuse, accidents, crime, etc, it is complex trauma, and takes more time and more sessions to unravel.

        After the processing, it is very important to continue through to the Installation phase of positive cognitions. It firms up the change in emotional viewpoint.

        I found through this process that past childhood trauma and the medical trauma I was experiencing quieted. My body, that was used to holding these memories and emotions, was able to relax to what seemed to be the cellular level. My vessels and my heart were helped.

        Along with other beneficial health practices, it singularly changed my life for the better. Although I am not cured, my body and my emotions are freer, and the fears about death and dying are 98% reduced.


  13. Dear Ladies of the Heart,

    It has been for me three years and 7 surgeries later and I am still in denial.

    These past 10 months have consisted of 3 surgeries 2 of which were heart ablations resulting from A-Fib with RVR and arrhythmia – overlooked by the 8 different cardiologists I consulted who did double bypass surgery, major infection ensued, worse then the bypass, and a short 4 months later a double angioplasty in a hyper-awake state because the pain medicine had an adverse effect upon me.

    I was so critical at that point I had no choice but to have the surgery; this woman gave birth breach after 18 hours of hard labor without pain medication, surely I could do this. Oh yes to answer your question I do not recommend either one. This was only the first year of my fall from super woman status.

    Second year began with a heart attack the following January and repeated EM visits, still no accurate diagnosis, tired sick, unable to walk across the room, eating nitro like candy. I found yet another cardiologist, same pat answer each time I went in with same symptoms.

    Finally some of the head fog lifted and I realized if I did not do my own research and take matters into my own hands, I would surely not survive one of these frequent ambulance rides to the emergency room.

    In researching my own medical records of my fall from super woman grace to sick woman grace in 2010 which led to the bypass surgery, I found the records included Atrial Fibulation and arrhythmia!

    Had I also seen an cardio electrophysiologist in the beginning or before the blockages took hold of me I would not be in bed today recovering from my second heart ablation.
    That fluttering in my chest, missed heartbeat, racing heart and dizzy spells while playing super Mom Multi-tasking in denial, I would have avoided the medical patient merry go round shuffle! A dance I do not recommend you try at home or elsewhere.

    We really can question what is being done to our bodies! We can participate and ask real questions and we can get answers.

    Use your super woman powers and take charge of your health care and be certain you seek out and find the health care provider who is right for you and your situation.

    Don’t give In and don’t give up!

    Still in denial, Yes! You bet I am. I refuse to believe this is the end of life as I have known it. It is the beginning of a life of awareness for you and for me.

    Blessings to all of you on your new journey and remember if you weren’t a control freak, you would not be here today to share your beautiful stories helping women restore their lives.

    The Queen of denial and still Super Woman – with balance and less ignorance.


  14. OMG this is exactly what I did right down to the phone call saying to my boyfriend “I’m having a heart attack” and looking at the nurse for assurance that I was, who nodded her head “yes” …lol

    I’m glad I’m still around to look back back on this.


    1. I couldn’t believe I was having a heart attack just 10 days after my baby was born. It could happen to any one. Thank God we are still around to take of ourselves and our family.


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