Heart attack survivor shares warning signs that saved her life
While nearly 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes, cardiovascular disease continues to be a woman’s greatest health threat. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.
According to the American Heart Association, heart attack symptoms for women are not the same as heart attack symptoms for men. When a woman is having a heart attack, she commonly thinks it’s something else.
That’s what happened to Lynda Diederich, of Evansville. At 51, active and healthy, a heart attack was the last thing on Lynda’s mind. Lynda said, “I started having symptoms in October but I justified every symptom I had.”
Lynda is a mother of three who travels frequently for work as a nurse consultant. Lynda said, “I had shortness of breath when I would be walking through airports. I figured it was a difference in altitude because I was in Denver. I would be tired and exhausted and I figured it was the time change going from East Coast to West Coast. I had pain between my shoulders and I thought maybe it was my computer bag. I was able to justify every symptom that I had.”
On Nov. 19, Lynda was in Chicago for work. She said, “I’m very thankful I wasn’t farther away. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and started Googling “heart attacks and women.” I packed my stuff up, I got myself down to my car and I drove myself to the hospital, which I absolutely do not recommend. Another thing I did that I don’t recommend is, I parked my own vehicle in the parking garage and walked myself into the emergency room. I should not have done that. By the time I got to there, I was able to say my name and that I was having a heart attack and that’s about all I could get out.”
Tests showed Lynda’s blood work and electrocardiogram were normal. Lynda asked her cardiologist to perform an angiogram. An angiogram is a medical imaging technique used to visualize the inside of the heart. The test showed the left anterior descending artery in Lynda’s heart was 98% blocked. A blockage in the left coronary artery is commonly known as “the widow maker.”
Lynda said, “I was shocked. It really took me back because I wasn’t expecting that. I’m generally pretty healthy and I’m very active. I work constantly and I’m always on my feet for work. I was shocked and it scares me every day. You can’t remove a heart. Your heart decides when it’s going to be done and you just don’t know when that’s going to be. You really need to pay attention to your symptoms.”
Dr. Thomas Wallhaus is Lynda’s cardiologist at Unity Point Health Meriter. Dr. Wallhaus says the major risk factors for heart disease in women are smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes and inactivity. Heart attacks are more lethal in women than in men.
Wallhaus said, “A woman who has a heart attack is more likely to die than a man who has a heart attack. Within a year of having a heart attack, a woman’s risk of dying is much higher than a man’s. If a woman smokes, the risk of having a problem is higher than for a man who smokes.”
Women often have different symptoms than men. “Most commonly, chest pain and pressure in the chest radiating down the arm is how angina is described. In women, they can be short of breath, feel nauseous or sometimes, they have back pain. Women often present later or, they have symptoms for a long time before it becomes clear those symptoms are heart related.”
Dr. Wallhaus says women of all ages need to know some key numbers.
“No. 1: Know your risk factors and be aware of your cholesterol, your blood pressure, your body mass index and take your health seriously. There’s a lot you can do that doesn’t involve medication. There’s exercise, adequate sleep, healthy relationships, mindfulness and meditation. These are things that can be done outside of the clinic that are important.”
Family history is also a major risk factor. Lynda said, “My mom and I were going through our family history and realized there were a lot of young males in our family between the ages of 47 and 55 that had heart attacks.”
Lynda credits the sudden and tragic loss of her cousin’s husband Keith from a heart attack with saving her life. Lynda said, “He lived in Southern California. He was a surfer, a mountain biker and runner. He was 57 years old and had a massive heart attack while running and passed away. He’d had a stress test months before he died. It was normal. If he had been able to have an angiogram, his life probably would have been saved. Keith did not die in vain. His death saved my life.”
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