On New Year’s Eve I was at the local sushi bar with my husband and 2 kids. It’s our annual tradition since moving to the neighborhood and one I look forward to in closing out the year and starting afresh. Shamefully I tend to scroll through my phone, and it’s one of my resolutions this year, to be in the moment and set electronics aside. On this particular occasion I had an email from a close friend and former co-worker and the contents sent a shock wave through me. I thought the message was a mistake. I’m sure I lost all color in my face as I quickly got up and told my husband I needed to make a call. Another co-worker and office confidant had passed away that day from a heart attack while on vacation with her family in Hawaii. Needless to say, this altered the course of my evening.
I was a week away from starting a much anticipated course in applied functional medicine and the thought floated through my mind, what would I learn that I didn’t know about heart health? The office talk was of shock and the comment I heard most often was, “She was doing everything right.” This is true, based on modern clinical medicine. She worked out regularly with a personal trainer, was conscientious of the foods she ate and she had a good working relationship with her doctor; including the annual blood work and physical check -up and all the other things that come with being a woman in her 50’s. What did that mean for the rest of us? I could almost hear those unspoken words at her memorial service.
I reflected on her last Facebook posts. One was how she had a terrible cold or possibly the flu that came on during her flight to Maui and that she had slept for 18 hours upon arrival. The second and last post was about giving in and going to an urgent care on the island and being grateful she was only suffering from a sinus infection, whereas the patient (a man) before her was being sent to the nearby hospital for a heart attack. She also commented that he was walking and talking and in good spirits, so they both considered him lucky. I’m not sure ironic is the appropriate term for the end result of her passing of a heart attack within 24 hours of that post.
I couldn’t help but think, if she were a man, they would have checked her heart condition at the urgent care and likely discovered that she too was in the midst of a heart attack or at least the onset. After a certain age, its standard operating procedure to check a man’s heart condition every time he visits a clinic. In Hollywood heart attacks are played out as a dramatic grab of the heart and gasp for air, by a man. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman have a heart attack in a movie or television show, have you? Interestingly heart disease is a leading cause in women’s deaths, far more than breast cancer, but it rarely takes center stage.
So what are the symptoms for women and heart attacks? I was surprised to read that the most common response from women that have survived a heart attack stated they just thought they had the flu. Therein lays the problem. Women tend to “power through” feeling unwell as the care takers of their families. The Cleveland Clinic has an informative post of 3 symptoms women need to pay attention to, as do their families, to detect the signs of a heart attack.
(1) Unusual fatigue (like sleeping for 18 hours)
(2) Sweating and/or shortness of breath
(3) Neck, jaw, back pain.
None of these symptoms would necessarily trigger alarm bells. The sweating is often considered a “hot flash” and who doesn’t suffer from lower back pain on occasion? Making these subtle signs all the more important to pay attention to, and take a moment to check in with your body and how you are feeling from an intuitive level. I believe my friend new something wasn’t right, and if she’d known these facts she may have said, “Will you check my heart while I’m here because I’m just not feeling right and I know these are some of the symptoms.” She was just the sort of person that would take that extra step.
Don’t keep this information to yourself! Share this and maybe it will help save a life.