Guess which woman in this photo is having a heart attack

This week: a terrific guest post by Linda Johns, librarian at Seattle Public Library by day and writer of children’s books (including the Hannah West mystery series) before and after work. Originally published on June 4, 2016 on Linda’s self-titled blog.

I am having a heart attack in this photo. But look at who I'm surrounded by -- friends and writers. Love these women! Kirsten Kittscher, Kiry Larson, Suzanne Selfors, Sara Nickerson, Jennifer Longo.

Can you tell which author in this group photo* taken at a Seattle book event was experiencing heart attack symptoms while this photo was being taken? Me neither. Read on to solve the mystery as told by Linda Johns – which reminds us that heart disease can strike any of us at any time, an equal-opportunity medical crisis. 

  ♥  ♥  ♥

“Three months ago I had a heart attack. And since the symptoms of a heart attack are different for women, and since the kind I had can strike people with no markers of heart disease, I’ve decided to tell my story. And because I love to name drop, I’ll do some of that along the way because I was with authors I love that night.

“I was at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, surrounded by friends. Authors Kirby Larson, Kristen Kittscher and I had just finished a presentation on our middle grade mysteries when in a flash everything changed for me. I had full-on flu-like symptoms, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I whispered to Kirby that I didn’t feel well and needed to leave; she took one look at me and tried to intervene, asking to take me home or to urgent care. Something was off. She told me she was worried, and that I looked ‘ashen’. (That specific word comes into play later.) I assured her I’d be fine. My friend Sara Nickerson looked concerned and touched her chest, a movement that triggered something in my brain.

“As I headed to my car, a pressure came into my chest. Weird, but not too bad. I thought about what Kirby had said, how Sara had touched her heart. I tried to stop the crazy thoughts in my head that maybe I was heading toward a heart attack. I thought about going back to the store, knowing that anyone in there would help me. My dear friend Jane (friends since college) had just left the bookstore and lives nearby. I knew I didn’t have to be alone. But I decided to drive home anyway.

“A few minutes into the drive, stabbing pain in my back came and I knew precisely what it was (thank you PBS documentary on women and heart disease!). Still, because I’m a dummy, I drove all the way home, threw up and then the pain went down my left arm to my little finger.

“I walked inside and asked Kevin, my husband, to take me to the ER. He asked no questions, just jumped up and grabbed his keys. I remember saying something like I might be embarrassed if it was nothing, but that I’d rather be embarrassed than dead. He just said: ‘We’re going.’

“My heart attack was not the Hollywood kind where someone (almost always a man) grabs his chest and doubles over in pain. Every one of my symptoms was one that would stand on its own as a possible heart attack; all of my symptoms are ones that could be, and often are, dismissed by healthcare professionals, let alone the people having them. When I walked into the ER, I listed them quickly and specifically. If you are a woman (or you know one), please take note of my heart attack symptoms:

  • Stabbing back pain between my shoulder blades
  • Pain radiating down my left arm to my little finger and ring finger
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain (this was the least of my symptoms)
  • And, I said, ‘A friend said I looked ashen.’

“All were noted, the word “ASHEN” in all caps, and I was taken in immediately. It was confirmed that I was having a heart attack, or, as I now call it, a myocardial infarction (MI). Just a couple months after a physical where I’d had a normal ECG and full blood work, with cholesterol scores so good I could have framed them. I exercise, eat reasonably well, don’t smoke, I’m not THAT old, and I was having a heart attack.

“The heart attack (MI) was caused by a tear in an artery wall, which is called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD.

“SCADs occur predominantly in women who are fit and healthy, with an average age of 42. We don’t know why they happen, and I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done to prevent it from happening. The first articles I read kept referring to SCAD as a rare disease. The SCAD Research Alliance says this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 3.10.02 PM“I’ve met some wonderful women through a SCAD Survivors group and I’m thankful every day for them and the research now being done at the Mayo Clinic. SCAD survivors share information on how hard the first year is, the fear of recurrence (a real fear, as it happens frequently), anxiety, making progress in cardiac rehabilitation, and finding a “new normal.”

“I am incredibly grateful to my friend Kirby because her concern and her words got me to the point where I knew this was real. This was big. Ashen is an unusual color for me unless, as it turns out, my heart is not getting enough oxygen.

“Heaps of thanks to my family and to all my friends, and those who, when they asked what they could do, came when I said the dog really could use a walk, or two, every day for a few weeks. Thank you.”


“My friend Jane took this photo just minutes before my heart attack. I still feel like the person here, although my new normal is definitely different.”
* Linda is having a heart attack in the group photo (top). She’s third from the left, seated.  “But look at who I’m surrounded by”, she adds. “Friends and writers I love.  Kristen Kittscher, Kirby Larson, Suzanne Selfors, Sara Nickerson, Jennifer Longo. I love these women!”

  ♥  ♥  ♥

© 2016 Linda Johns

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote much more about cardiac symptoms in women in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press).   You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (if you use their code HTWN , you can save 30% off the list price).

Q:  Have you ever smiled at the camera despite feeling seriously ill?

Here’s a shot of my own smiling face between my late mother Joan and daughter Larissa the day before I was hospitalized with a heart attack in 2008.

See also:

When your artery tears – Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection

How does it really feel to have a heart attack? Women survivors answer that question

Be your own hero during a heart attack

All the SCAD ladies, put your hands up!(The Wall Street Journal’s feature on Laura and Katherine Leon‘s success in convincing Mayo Clinic cardiologists to undertake SCAD researchRead

SCAD Ladies Stand Up: Stories of Patient Empowerment, the special report from and the WomenHeart support community.  It features a  number of interesting first-person accounts from SCAD survivors.

So, I had a heart attack … – Linda’s original blog post

16 thoughts on “Guess which woman in this photo is having a heart attack

  1. I love this post. My first cardiac event was at a conference in Marseille where the host kept asking me to drink more of the amazing wine and have dessert, and I simply couldn’t. But in public I did not stop smiling. I look radiant in most of the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Margarita! Linda’s story really rang true for me, too (as you can see from the photo of me and my daughter – me smiling like crazy despite severe cardiac symptoms! It was my mother’s 80th birthday celebration so I didn’t want to disrupt her special day).

      Take care, stay safe… ♥


  2. Good post – as always – Carolyn. I saw this picture a few weeks back on a feed and I immediately spotted the woman. Couldn’t tell the ash coloring on my feed but the “smile” was her give-away.

    Many people smile their way through pain of every kind . . . I know I have a public face and a private face. It’s probably not always a bad thing EXCEPT when I may be in ultimate danger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lovely to hear from you, Judy-Judith! After a 35+ year career in public relations, I became an expert at my own public face. It’s a generally pleasant face, except, as you say, when you are in real danger but look “fine, just fine!” Perhaps we should start practicing our “screaming” face instead… I think Linda’s photo is interesting because it was taken at a major book event with her fellow authors so the pressure was on not to ruin the occasion by making a fuss – likely why she turned down her friend’s offer to drive her to Urgent Care.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I pretty much never – well, never – respond online but today is different. When I went to Vancouver for the study, I found out I had actually had 2 dissections, not one. I am 70 years old. I am a SCAD survivor.

    I just passed the one year mark!! For a long time I found myself saying “I can’t because…” Now am progressing well in the Cardiac Rehab program. I write because of the comment about the fear of recurrence. Wondering why it hit me since I was 69 – kind of outside the parameters and would jokingly say it must be because I am young for my age!

    Recently I have met at Rehab a woman who had her SCAD just 3 weeks ago and asked to have a coffee with me after exercises next week. I was not going to do it because staying positive is a bit more challenging some days, but then I remembered how fearful those first nine months were for me . So I will go.

    I am not sure when things changed for me but I read somewhere that some women live long healthy lives and never have another ‘event’. I have decided I will be that woman.

    Carolyn, I am so thankful for your blog arriving every week and have passed it along to the newbie. Looking forward to seeing what your next project will be.

    Wishing good health to all,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sylvia, I’m thrilled that you decided to leave such an inspiring comment here today! And Happy One-Year Heart-iversary to you. I think I spent the whole first year after my own heart attack being “hypervigilant“, preparing myself every day for that second heart attack. And then one day, just as you describe, I decided hmmmm…. I’m still here. I haven’t died yet. Maybe I WON’T die, at least not right away… It takes a while to get to that place, though, doesn’t it?

      Another of my readers, Alicia Burns, who lives with the serious cardiac arrhythmia called Brugada Syndrome, had a great analogy recently for those of us who tend to say “I can’t, because…”. She compared this to leasing a new car but never driving it “because…” Why pay for it to sit in your driveway? she asks. Why have it if you won’t drive your car? She wrote a really good blog post recently after she realized that she wasn’t thinking of her diagnosis every day anymore – you might enjoy reading it.

      Thanks again, and I hope you will leave more comments in the future! P.S. Have fun at coffee next week with your new SCAD pal…


  4. Been there, although I ended up with a heart block and a pacemaker. I had been having all of these symptoms for 3 months. Finally, I called with Level 7 pain and was told “the Dr doesn’t know what to do for you, come in tomorrow and see whoever is on call”. I did and my pulse was 30…. emergency pacemaker here we come.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Got it immediately. Ashen is the clue!

    Had a MI in January, 2013; when I was admitted to the ER the nurse commented on my colour. I will never forget that.

    Love reading your blog.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Paddy! It makes sense that your skin colour (turning from regular colour to blue or grey) would be affected by lack of oxygenated bloodflow caused by that heart attack, doesn’t it?


    1. You picked the right one, Joyce! Just curious – which was the second woman you guessed, and why did you pick her? The answer (for readers who haven’t found her yet) is at the end of this post – the red *!


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s