I‘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?
“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).
Q: Have you ever been struck by The Stun after a crisis?