Sometimes, the story of how another woman first discovered she had heart disease can seem eerily familiar to our own. It’s that familiarity that first attracted me to this Dear Carolyn episode (our fourth in the occasional series that features my Heart Sisters readers sharing the unique experience of what it can feel like to become a heart patient).
This particular blog reader, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains her reluctance to seek medical help while repeatedly blaming her distressing symptoms on non-cardiac causes. I completely identified with that reluctance because I went through that same surreal refusal to seek help for my own worsening cardiac symptoms after being misdiagnosed in the E.R. with acid reflux. If you, too, have ever engaged in what researchers call “treatment-seeking delay behaviour” during a heart attack, her story might feel familiar to you, too.
“I really don’t know how or what led me here to your website, but it was either before – or during! – my cardiac event. I was desperately searching for answers to some alarming symptoms I was experiencing at that time. I live in Canada, and I also took comfort that this was a Canadian-based site.
“I was terrified, and I kept going back to your blog article entitled “How does it really feel to have a heart attack? Women survivors answer that question.“ I could not get enough of the stories and experiences I was reading about from other women just like me.
“I wanted to read (yet not!) – maybe just to substantiate my own concerns of how I was feeling at the time. There were many women from different ages and so many individual personal scenarios and experiences, but it certainly got me thinking. This segment really helped me a lot.
“Your website surely helped lend a hand in saving my life. Not every Google search for my distressing symptoms ticked every box and I was never one to complain (probably just a bit of stress, maybe a chest infection, maybe the flu, over-exertion physically, busy, tired and achy, insert excuse here_____!)
“What I needed to read were personal accounts of real women – and I got that here.
“I had been passing off my unwellness, thinking maybe it was just a chest infection or pneumonia. I had experienced pneumonia two years prior, and I wondered if this were the same or a similar condition. I also wondered, with all my Dr. Google searches, where my diagnosis would lead. But in October of 2017, I finally dragged myself to a walk-in clinic after a week or more of feeling really unwell.
“I told the doctor that my arms felt like lead, and that I was having waves of pain throughout the day and then the pain would lift for a while but then return. I was prescribed Amoxicillin. No tests or chest x-rays needed, the doctor said. He told me just to try the medication. As I left the clinic, the pain lifted; I happily drove home and the world seemed right again. I had my meds now, and I was sure that in a couple of days, I would be on the mend.
“But 4-5 days later, I was still having these intermittent symptoms, and my family urged me to go to the Emergency Department. But it was Thanksgiving weekend and our local Emergency is SO busy. I could not fathom waiting in line for hours, triaged to the bottom of the urgency list.
“I thought maybe the antibiotics prescribed were not strong enough. I would just wait. My loving family was somewhat annoyed with me for being stubborn. I couldn’t go through that again, sitting with waves of unusual pain I could barely describe.
“In hindsight, I never knew my pain was chest pain, otherwise in all fairness I’m sure I would have been seen immediately. I didn’t know that then.
“After the Monday Thanksgiving holiday (with my family enjoying – and cooking – dinner while I laid down), and remembering those Heart Sisters articles, I finally contacted my family physician’s office and was able to see her the next day.
“She sent me immediately for an entire work-up of labs and diagnostic tests. After the EKG, the lab told me to take the results in an envelope back down to my physician’s office before I left the building. My doctor was waiting for me and told me I was most likely having a cardiac event right then and there. I was escorted across the street to Emergency in a wheelchair.
“After admission to the hospital, the head cardiologist told me that I’d likely experienced a heart attack weeks earlier, too.
“That timeline exactly fit when I started feeling waves of discomfort. I guess I kept going to work each day for weeks after the heart attack, just trying to get through it. Little did I know. . . I was scheduled right away for an angiogram at St. Boniface Hospital.
“It was on this day that I had a stent implanted by one competent Dr. Michael Love, a fitting name indeed for a cardiologist, I thought. He was thorough, articulate and communicative, which made me happy. I apparently had a 95% blockage in my left anterior descending coronary artery.
“The entire scenario from early discomfort/pain to diagnosis to coronary stent was an unexpected and overwhelming experience, to say the least. It gives a whole new meaning to an exclusive Second Chance Club that many women are lucky enough to be a privileged part of.
“Life is changing. I now exercise by walking 1-3 miles per day (in my living room during our brutal winter) and have discovered an entirely new and challenging dietary plan for my husband and myself.
“Admittedly, I must be a stubborn woman at 56 years of age by not really realizing or believing what was happening to me at the time, but I am glad to be here. Your Heart Sisters blog was one of the first I landed upon, and is an invaluable resource about women and heart disease. Thanks very much for your continued efforts. Keep up the great work. 😊
“I’m happy to share my real life everyday story I’ve experienced if only to help others – just as other women’s stories have helped me as I desperately searched for information.”
If you are experiencing distressing symptoms that are unusual for you, please seek medical help. Call 911. Don’t try to minimize your symptoms. Say: “I think I’m having a heart attack!” Chew one full-strength aspirin with water if you like (unless you’re allergic or are already taking blood-thinning meds).
Q: Have you ever delayed seeking help despite distressing symptoms?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about women’s heart attack symptoms (Chapter 1) and why women tend to delay seeking treatment (Chapter 2) in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
- Dear Carolyn: “Breaking up is hard to do”
- Dear Carolyn: “I’m having the time of my life!”
- Dear Carolyn: “Did I have a ‘real’ heart attack?”
- Dear Carolyn: “My husband’s heart attack was treated differently than mine”
- Dear Carolyn: “I had both acid reflux and a heart attack at the same time!”
- Dear Carolyn: “People can change for the better”
- 6 reasons women delay seeking medical help – even in mid-heart attack