day last March, Blake returned from his daily six-mile walk feeling a
little sick. "I was going to have dinner, but I wasnít really
hungry. That shouldíve been the tip-off to me that something was
wrong," he says. "I felt like I had a bad case of heartburn,
so I went to lie down. That didnít help, and when I stood up, I felt
light-headed and faint."
Blake, who is in his mid-60s, went into
another room and sat down, waiting for the discomfort to pass.
"After about three hours, it was getting progressively
worse," he says, noting there is a history of heart and vascular
disease in his family. "My father and brother both suffered from
it, so I began to worry this could be a heart attack. I remembered
hearing you should take an aspirin, so I did that. Then I told myself
it might be a good idea to unlock the front door, in case someone had
to come in."
Finally, Blake called 911. "It
wasnít an easy decision for me. I kept denying it was my
heart," he says.
But it was a heart attack. Brookfield
paramedics rushed Blake to the Heart Hospital in Wauwatosa, where
physicians discovered a blocked artery leading to his heart and
inserted a stent ó a tiny mesh tube used to force the artery to
open, allowing blood to flow.
What happened to Blake is not uncommon,
says Dr. Javed Tunio, co-chair of cardiovascular services and director
of cardiac imaging for Wheaton Franciscan Health Care. "We see it
all the time. People feel like they have heartburn or gas and they
wait, thinking it will go away, or they donít want to bother their
family by telling them about it. That is a mistake."
While some heart attacks are sudden and
intense, most start slowly with mild pain or discomfort and get worse
over time. "If the blood supply to the heart is cut off for more
than a few minutes, heart muscle cells suffer permanent injury. Those
muscle cells are never replaced," Tunio says.
Tunio stresses that many heart attacks
do involve discomfort in the center of the chest that feels like
pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. "People describe it as
severe, as if an elephant was sitting on their chest," he says.
"It can be accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, nausea
Sally Andersen of Waukesha had a visit
from that elephant on May 19, when she experienced the second heart
attack of her life. "I had taken my husband to his cardiologist
earlier that day. I started to have pains across my back and
underarms, followed by very bad pain in my chest. I told my husband I
thought I was having a heart attack and so we immediately drove to
Waukesha Memorial Hospital," she says.
Fortunately, 82-year-old Andersen
recognized right away that she was having a heart attack and reacted
quickly. "It was the same feeling I had 16 years ago. I knew I
had to get to the hospital right away," she says.
Although Andersen had some of the
classic symptoms of a heart attack, many women do not. "Older
women in particular may feel very weak, fatigued and nauseous. There
can be discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the jaw,
neck or stomach," says Dr. Imad Katib, interventional
cardiologist with ProHealth Care. "Diabetics may also have these
unusual symptoms. That is why some patients may not think to mention
"People should be aware if these
symptoms donít ease up after 10 to 15 minutes, they should talk to
someone about it. Call for help. We see people who have waited for two
or three days sometimes and they may have severe heart muscle damage
by that time," Katib says. "We have a saying that Ďtime is
muscle.í The sooner you can get to the hospital, the better our
chance of saving heart muscle."
Blake also warns itís better to err
on the side of caution. "If you think youíre having a problem,
you might end up with no problem, but itís better to call for help.
Donít be tempted to brush off the symptoms."
|It's a sign
Heart attack symptoms differ widely. One person may have minor
pain while another has excruciating pain. The National
Institutes of Health describes these warning signs for men and
Chest discomfort or pain that
feels like pressure, fullness or squeezing in the center of the
Upper body pain in shoulders,
arms, back, neck, teeth or jaw
Stomach pain that feels like
Shortness of breath
Anxiety or a feeling of panic
Light-headedness or dizziness
Sweating and cold, clammy skin
Nausea and vomiting
Women may have all, none or a few
of the above typical symptoms, according to the NIH. Women are
more likely than men to also have heart attack symptoms without