Did you know that February is American Heart Month? A whole month, dedicated to what is arguably the most important organ in your body. Perched here in the middle-aged cheap seats, I recently became acutely aware of the warning signs that every woman should know regarding her heart and heart health.
Monday evening, after a rather grueling weight training class, I began to feel an uncomfortable pulling kind of pressure under my left ribs. First thought: – I’ve pulled a chest muscle.
Tuesday, day two, I was still experiencing an uncomfortable kind of tug on my left side. I also seemed a bit more tired than usual. But, I chalked it up to over-doing it in the gym and powered through the day.
Wednesday, day three, I began to suspect that something was not quite right. To go along with the uncomfortable sensation up under my left ribs, I also seemed to have terrible indigestion – with pressure in my chest. This continued most of the day. When I Googled “Women and Heart Attacks” this is what I discovered:
Women don’t always get the same classic heart attack symptoms as men, such as crushing chest pain that radiates down one arm. Those heart attack symptoms can certainly happen to women, but many experience vague or even “silent” symptoms that they may miss:
- Chest pain or discomfort. Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom, but some women may experience it differently than men. It may feel like a squeezing or fullness, and the pain can be anywhere in the chest, not just on the left side.
- Pain in your arm(s), back, neck, or jaw. This type of pain is more common in women than in men. It may confuse women who expect their pain to be focused on their chest and left arm, not their back or jaw.
- Stomach pain. Sometimes people mistake stomach pain that signals a heart attack with heartburn, the flu, or a stomach ulcer.
- Shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness. If you’re having trouble breathing for no apparent reason, you could be having a heart attack, especially if you’re also having one or more other symptoms.
- Sweating. Breaking out in a nervous, cold sweat is common among women who are having a heart attack. It will feel more like stress-related sweating than perspiration from exercising or spending time outside in the heat.
- Fatigue. Some women who have heart attacks feel extremely tired, even if they’ve been sitting still for a while or haven’t moved much.
And here was the kicker:
If you have chest discomfort, especially if you also have one or more of the other signs, call 911 immediately.
Well, I was experiencing #1, #3 and #6 – ding, ding, ding – DANGER!!
By Wednesday evening, the pressure in my chest was becoming more intense and by 8:30 pm I calmly told my husband, “I think we need to go to the emergency room.” How did he know I was serious? Modern Family was about to start – and I never miss an episode of Modern Family.
Note this mistake/important lesson: we should have called 911. Chest pains of any kind should be taken seriously and driving yourself, or having a friend or family member drive you, to the emergency room is unwise. We were not impeded by traffic or any other mishap – but we were lucky. Do not rely on luck.
Upon arriving at the emergency room, I encountered a common misconception about the symptoms of a heart attack: I was not male; I was not an over-fifty male; I was not an over-fifty male clutching my chest and yelling “I coming to join you Elizabeth!” (Props to anyone who gets that Sanford and Son reference…)
After I calmly completed the initial admissions paperwork and returned it to the “could-not-be-more-bored-with-my-job” receptionist, he mumbled for me to have a seat and I would be called soon. Eyebrows raised, I stared back at him and replied;
“Um, I’m having chest pains.”
He blinked a few times, seemingly trying to process what I had just said. He looked down at the paperwork, then back at me with an expression that conveyed – Well, you don’t LOOK like you’re having a heart attack. Then he mumbled, “OK, just a minute.”
Once we got past Mister “I Couldn’t Give a Damn” and through the magic retracting doors, attention was swift and immediate.
“Are you experiencing pain or pressure in your chest?”
“Do you have a history of heart problems?”
“Is there a history of heart disease in your family?”
“What is your age?”
“Have you ever experienced these symptoms before?”
I was hooked up to monitors, blood was drawn, blood pressure was taken…. And then we waited. I realized that waiting was good. If I was in the middle of a heart attack there would have been a lot more action. I also had a chest x-ray, to check for a blood clot. As we were walking back to the x-ray area, the technician, his head buried in my paperwork, asked if I could be pregnant. I stared back with a crooked grin and he looked up, smiled back and said;
“Sorry, I have to ask.”
Dude, did you have to apologize?!
Three hours later we were relieved to be told that there were no indications that I was having or had experienced a heart attack. More likely, it was acute indigestion coupled with a pulled chest muscle. EVERYONE – nurses, technicians, and doctors – commented that we had absolutely done the right thing by coming to the emergency room.
“AT YOUR AGE, better to be safe than sorry.” At my age… sigh.
I do have a follow-up appointment scheduled with a cardiologist, just to be safe. Will probably entail a stress test – not a bad idea; better to be safe than sorry indeed.