No one in my house got much sleep on the night of April 15th, 2018. From my quiet bedroom, I could hear my father tossing and turning in pain in his bed down the hall. Every half-hour or so, I’d hear my mom ask him if he’s all right, and once or twice the sound of a phone’s keyboard tapping. When I woke up to get ready for school the next morning, I was told: “Dad’s going to the doctor, he’s got some odd indigestion and aching pains.”
Fast-forward to just after 3:00 pm that day, my phone rings and the drowsy, chemically-relaxed voice of my father says: “You need to come to Burnaby Hospital.” My 48-year-old dad had had a heart attack.
A heart attack is when the heart stops supplying blood to the body. It’s generally caused by blockage of the arteries, such as cholesterol plaque build-up along the walls of the artery, blood clots, and artery spasms.
Most of us expect heart attack symptoms to manifest as cramping in the left arm while the sufferer collapses with chest pain like they do in the movies. In fact, there are many different ways symptoms can present themselves, and it’s a fatal mistake to focus only on a few when teaching basic life skills. The Heart and Stroke Foundation describes six symptoms: chest discomfort (pressure, fullness); sweating; upper-body discomfort (neck, jaw, shoulders, arms, back); nausea; shortness of breath; light-headedness.
“I just thought I had the flu,” my 80 year-old grandmother said regarding her symptoms of her heart attack in January of 1988. “I was a bit nauseous, but I didn’t know. I just figured, it was flu season.”
Women are more likely to experience common symptoms beyond chest pain, including back and jaw pain. “[I had] a pain in my jaw,” my grandmother told me. “Which I had had for years off and on.” At one point the pain was so awful that she described literally hitting her head against the floor.
Women may encounter different symptoms of heart attacks which can mislead the victim. “Women can experience a heart attack without any chest pressure,” Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center told the American Heart Association. Nausea, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath can all be associated to heart attacks, and unfortunately, also line up with symptoms of sickness and simple ageing.
Women aren’t alone in experiencing peculiar symptoms that may be unrecognized. Dr. Jorge Plutzky told Harvard Health Publishing, “symptoms can feel so mild, and be so brief, they often get confused for regular discomfort or another less serious problem, and thus men ignore them.” These so called “silent heart attacks” or SMIs can cause the same damage to the heart as they are just like any other heart attack, but their symptoms are harder to detect and can be dismissed as regular muscle pain or discomfort.
“Leading up to it, honestly, I didn’t feel anything, I felt normal, my life was normal,” my dad described sitting in the living room on the same La-Z-Boy recliner that once served as his bed during surgery and recovery a year ago. “I went to bed, I didn’t feel great,” he said. “I had some sore muscles, but I have sore muscles all the time.”
“I thought gallbladder, … I thought it might’ve been a stroke … I didn’t really trigger on it being a heart attack until I went [to the doctor.]” The main, odd symptom that he was experiencing throughout the night was gas and indigestion. “I had bad gas, I just kept burping,” he recalled.
“I tell my patients that if you belch and the symptoms go away, it probably isn’t related to your heart but to your esophagus,” says Mary Ann Bauman, M.D. when differentiating between heartburn and a heart attack. “But if you have shortness of breath or sweating, then it’s likely a heart-related issue.”
I nearly lost my grandma and my dad to abnormal and hard-to-recognize heart attacks. In 1988, my family was lucky to have neighbours who checked on my grandmother when she tried calling them from the floor. In 2018, my family was lucky to have a man who didn’t want to “tough it out.” Today, I’m lucky to speak of them in present tense.
Image credit: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay
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