“You’d never guess that I’d had a heart attack”

To look at me – a fit and healthy 42-year-old woman – you’d never guess that I’d had a heart attack. But that’s exactly what happened to me on 12th September 2013

To look at me – a fit and healthy 42-year-old woman – you’d never guess that I’d had a heart attack.

But that’s exactly what happened to me on 12th September 2013 (funnily, it was a month or so after becoming an auto-buyer for the Heart Foundation Lottery :) 

I have no family history, no congenital conditions or habits that would lead me to expect that I would one day be rushed off to hospital for emergency cardiac care. (Actually, ‘rushed’ doesn’t quite describe the 40-minute leisurely drive, but we’ll come back to that later).

I have never smoked; have been teetotal most of my life (due to an intolerance to alcohol); eat a very healthy balanced diet; and do swimming, walking, or dancing most days. 

I had no obvious warning signs in the hours and days leading up to the heart attack, so I was swimming at my local pool when it happened. I swam about 10 lengths and then stopped as I thought I might be coming down with a cold or something – it was taking twice as much effort as usual to get from one end of the pool to the other. Deciding to take things easy, I got out and sat in the steam room for 10 minutes, where I felt a bit better.

As I walked around the pool, back to the changing room, I started to feel a tightness across my chest and down my left arm, with a slight shortness of breath. I picked up my bag and headed for the showers. As I shampooed my hair, a cramping kind of pain emerged in my chest and arm. I racked my brain for possible causes, and all I could come up with was a heart attack.

I thought ‘If I really am having a heart attack, I want to get dressed first!’ So, I decided that singing a mantra to myself might calm my breathing and heart rate down far enough to gain enough time to get out of the shower and get my clothes on.

It certainly did help, but by the time I was dressed I’d talked myself out of driving anywhere as the pain was quite intense. I phoned my local doctor’s surgery and told the nurse what symptoms I was experiencing, to which she calmly responded with ‘Put the phone down and call 111 immediately. You may not be having a heart attack, but you do need to get yourself checked out’. I thanked her and asked the lady at the pool reception to call 111 for me – I was struggling with breathing by this point, and needed to sit down. Five minutes before the ambulance arrived (it took 30 minutes), my symptoms lifted and I could breathe more easily (what a relief).

The crew looked at me (otherwise the picture of health), and said it was more likely a panic attack, indigestion, or something similar, but they set to checking me out. This involved me walking 6 steps to the ambulance. On the 2nd step all my symptoms came flooding back. They sprayed something under my tongue which took away the pain, but knocked me out, and then asked me all kinds of questions.

The next 15 minutes or so are a complete blur, but by the time we arrived at Auckland City Hospital (a 40-minute journey), I was sitting up and laughing with the lovely ambulance lady. They wheeled me in on a trolley, eyes bright, smiling widely, and put me into the Emergency Cardiac Ward for monitoring. Lots of doctors and nurses visited me – all saying they didn’t suspect anything heart-related – asking me about my smoking and eating habits. Fortunately, they did do the one test that showed conclusively that I had indeed had a heart attack – Troponin levels. It seems that a rise in the levels of the hormone Troponin shows up what an ECG doesn’t when you’ve had a SCAD heart attack.

The following day I had an angiogram and echocardiogram, which showed I’d had a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). The cardiologists talked about a ‘dissection’, but no-one explained to me what that meant. I was sent home on the 4th day with standard heart attack medication (beta blockers, statins, blood thinners, and baby aspirin), and no information about what had happened (or why), or what to do about it. It was only through Googling ‘dissection’ I came across the research and YouTube videos from the Mayo Clinic in the USA who are investigating this supposedly quite rare type of heart attack. I also found the wonderful ‘SCAD Survivors’ Facebook page, where I was able to connect with people (mostly women) from around the world who had experienced the same kind of heart attack.

Until then I had felt incredibly isolated and confused. Research has so far shown that the only pre-requisite for having a SCAD heart attack, is having a heart, so I would like to get out and about in NZ and talk to groups of men and women about SCAD. Knowledge and awareness can mean the difference between taking symptoms seriously resulting in getting help quickly, and ignoring symptoms or not being correctly diagnosed resulting in more serious damage to the heart (and potential loss of life). For more information about SCAD heart attacks, see the Mayo Clinic’s YouTube videos.

If you have experienced a SCAD heart attack and would like to connect with others in NZ, request to join the ‘SCAD Survivors New Zealand’ on Facebook. (It is a closed group to enable privacy of conversations).

 Thank you for reading my story :)