Promoting Heart Attack Symptom Awareness in Women for American Heart Month, By Dr. Cori Johnson

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Cori Johnson, DNP, CRNP, AGNP-C

September 21, 2015 is a day that I will never forget.

I was seeing a patient in the clinic when my dad called me on my cell phone. He never does this, so I stepped away and answered the phone. He told me that my mother had been taken to the hospital and they thought she was having a heart attack. I was in total shock. I immediately made the hour and a half drive from downtown Birmingham to my hometown of Fort Payne, Alabama, arriving at the hospital to find my mom out of the operating room and awake in the ICU.

My mom, a 61-year-old, very healthy female, had in fact had a heart attack, and a stent was placed within 36 minutes of arriving to the emergency department. She had a 100 percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, which is often called the widow-maker, and the medical team’s quick work saved her life.

I was beyond thankful that she had great outcomes and lived, but I felt like it was all a bad dream. I thought, “How could this have happened to my mama? She is so young!” She did not fit the mold of the typical heart attack patient. She had never had high blood pressure or cholesterol. She was very active. She had never been overweight and never smoked. She was postmenopausal, but she was not on any hormone replacement therapy. Her father had a heart attack at age 62, but that was her only link to heart disease.

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Dr. Cori Johnson poses for a photo with her mom, who had an unexpected heart attack in 2015.

Questions and fear consumed my mind because this potentially deadly heart attack had struck with no warning. My mom denied experiencing any chest pain. She did not experience what we would recognize as the typical warning signs. However, when I questioned her further, I discovered that she did in fact have warning signs — they were just the less recognizable, female specific warning signs.

Before her heart attack, she ate breakfast and experienced a burning sensation in her neck/throat area and a heavy sensation in her arms. It went away, however, and she brushed it off. The next morning, she ate breakfast and the burning and heaviness came back. This time they did not go away. At the time, she thought she needed to rest her heavy arms on the bed. She did not realize it was a heart attack.

Her experience is all too common. Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, and while awareness has improved in the last decade, only 54 percent of women recognize that heart disease is their No. 1 killer.

While some women experience no symptoms before a heart attack, women should be aware of the symptoms and warning signs of a heart attack specific to their gender. This can make a difference in receiving swift, life-saving medical care. Compared to men’s symptoms, women are more likely to describe chest pain that is sharp, burning, and more frequently have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back, according to the CDC. These symptoms may occur during rest, begin during physical activity or be triggered by mental stress.

Other common symptoms for heart attacks in women include the following:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper back pain
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Upper body discomfort
  • Shortness of breath

Women may also experience angina, a dull, heavy to sharp chest pain or discomfort, and two-thirds of women have no previous symptoms. To reduce chances of heart disease, the CDC encourages taking precautions such as lowering stress levels, limiting alcohol intake and knowing your blood pressure. It’s also important to inform yourself.

For more information regarding women and heart disease, you can visit cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm, which includes heart disease facts, symptoms, risk factors and screening specifically for women.

Cori Johnson, DNP, CRNP, AGNP-C, is a board-certified Adult/Geriatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner and has a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner degree. She started her career as an RN in UAB’s Surgical Intensive Care Unit. She then worked as a Nurse Practitioner with the Vascular Division at UAB. Currently she is a full-time Instructor at the SON and teaches in the Adult/Geriatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Program.

One thought on “Promoting Heart Attack Symptom Awareness in Women for American Heart Month, By Dr. Cori Johnson

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  1. Cori, This is an excellent assessment of what happens to women! Thank you for sharing your story and I am so glad your mom received prompt attention.

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