These moms didn’t realize they were having a heart attack. Why experts say it’s important to know the subtle signs.
Even being young and healthy is no guarantee that a heart attack won’t strike
When she was 28 years old, Rachel D'Souza-Siebert and her husband, Brian, were ecstatic to bring their first child, Cameron, home from the hospital. “When I think about that first week with Brian and Cameron home, I can't help but think the universe was trying to show me every beautiful, perfect facet of itself,” D’Souza wrote in a blog she started after the birth of her son.
D'Souza-Siebert expected to spend her maternity leave getting to know her new baby and enjoying the things she missed during her pregnancy, like wine and cheese.
Instead, eight days after becoming a new mom, D'Souza-Siebert experienced a spontaneous coronary artery dissection and subsequent “widowmaker” heart attack.
D'Souza-Siebert had no family history of heart disease and says she always prioritized her health. She went the gym several times a week, ate a balanced diet and maintained a healthy weight. So when she suddenly “experienced terrible, agonizing pain” in the center of her chest, her triceps, down the backs of her arms and in her back eight days after her son was born, she was scared and had no idea what was going on.
“It felt like simultaneously being hit in the back with a baseball bat, having the skin ripped off my arms and being stabbed in the chest. The pain hurt so bad I kept holding my breath and forgetting to breathe.” D'Souza-Siebert tells Yahoo Life.
D'Souza-Siebert’s husband took her to the emergency room, but the doctors there didn’t even consider that she was having a heart attack for several hours. “I was a young woman of color. I didn’t fit the ‘profile’ of someone experiencing a heart attack, despite experiencing traditional heart attack symptoms, and because of that spent many hours in pain while people tried to treat my ‘anxiety’ about becoming a new mother,” she says.
After an ultrasound ultimately revealed that D'Souza-Siebert was in serious trouble, a cardiologist rushed her into emergency surgery, which saved her life.
It’s been 11 years since D'Souza-Siebert's heart attack. She says that even years later life has not returned to “normal” and never will. She needs to take medication, follow a heart-healthy diet and exercise regularly for the rest of her life. She worries “every day about having another heart attack,” she says. “It is a trauma.” But she is grateful that she has been able to watch her son grow up and that she has had a second child.
“Women of all ages should be encouraged to know their cardiac risk factors and how to reduce the likelihood of a cardiac event,” she says. For D'Souza-Siebert, “the biggest lifestyle change was reducing the amount of stress … experienced as a working parent and protecting time for rest.”
D'Souza-Siebert isn’t entirely sure what caused her heart attack, but it may have been related to hormonal changes she experienced during pregnancy.
With heart attacks rising in younger people, especially women, it’s important for people of all ages to know the signs of a heart attack and its risk factors.
What are the signs of a heart attack?
While some people know they are having a heart attack because it feels like an elephant is standing on their chest, other signs are more subtle.
Dr. Jamal Rana, chief of cardiology at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that it can be difficult to spot a heart attack because “there is a wide spectrum of symptoms.” He explains that while the “most common symptoms are chest pain or pressure, there can be discomfort in the jaw and arms. At times, feeling fatigued, shortness of breath or nausea could be a symptom of an impending heart attack.”
The symptoms of a heart attack are the same for younger and older people, Rana says. However, younger patients “may not take them as seriously or think of their symptoms as a possible heart attack,” he explains. This can result in delayed treatment, which can have serious consequences.
Are heart attack symptoms different for women?
Another factor that can make it hard to spot a heart attack in women is that they may experience symptoms that are different from men's. “For women, common symptoms could be lower chest or upper abdomen pain, feeling of indigestion or fatigue along with the more usual symptom of chest pain,” Rana says. Because many of these symptoms “can be confused with other conditions, women tend to wait longer to seek care,” he says.
That was true for Jennifer Wray, a heart attack survivor and volunteer advocate for the Family Heart Foundation. When she was 41, she says that life was “pretty typical.” Wray had finally become a mother after years of trying to have a baby. Life was busy caring for her 21-month-old son, Sam, and working full time. In the week leading up to her heart attack, Wray tells Yahoo Life she “had some small symptoms,” including feeling “particularly exhausted” when she carried her toddler upstairs to bed and “a general sense that something was ‘off.’”
Then, one night her sense of uneasiness grew. “Something felt horribly wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was, only that I felt scared,” she shares. “I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past and thought it was likely a panic attack.” Wray considered going to the emergency room but says she tried to be “logical” about her symptoms and reasoned that she was young and healthy, so there probably wasn’t anything seriously wrong.
Wray tried taking hot showers instead to try to calm her anxiety and relieve the pain she had started to feel in both arms — something she didn’t know then was a sign of a heart attack. She says she didn’t feel any chest pain until many hours later and even then didn’t go to the emergency room.
Instead, she spent the night “in a near-hysteria, crying, practicing meditative breathing, and hopping in and out of the shower in a fruitless attempt to wrestle control over the situation,” Wray says. The next morning, she called her doctor’s office but was told the doctor couldn’t see her until later that day. “I was exhausted,” Wray says, but her husband urged her to go to a nearby clinic. There, a concerned lab technician suggested she go to the emergency room. Even when she got to the hospital, Wray says she was “in denial about the severity of the situation.”
Wray was supposed to stay overnight and have more testing the next day. However, around 2 a.m. she “woke up to the sensation of chest compressions — I’d gone into cardiac arrest,” she says. Wray was rushed into surgery and survived. If she had waited to see her doctor, the outcome could have been very different.
For a month after her heart attack, Wray wore an external defibrillator that would shock her heart into restarting if she had another heart attack. She also started a number of medications and participated in a cardiac rehabilitation program.
Later, after additional testing, Wray discovered that she has a genetic condition called elevated lipoprotein(a), which raises the risk of heart attacks. “Had I known that I had this condition, I would have been less likely to delay treatment for my heart attack, and I could have taken other preventative steps in advance,” she says. Both Wray’s son and her father, who has also had a heart attack, have been diagnosed with the same condition.
Four years after her heart attack, Wray is doing well but says that “it’s been a difficult time, and I’ve been far from perfect, but I’ve done my best to try to limit stress, eat healthfully and stay active,” although she still worries about having another heart attack.
“I wish there was a ‘new mom’ type of package that you receive after you have a heart attack”
When LaFae Hyronemus was 49, she tells Yahoo Life that she “was on top of the world.” She had three children and had recently married an “amazing” man who treated her “like a princess.” She had “a great job and great friends” with “almost no stress or drama” in her life.
She was overweight but felt healthy, always had lots of energy and rarely got sick.
When Hyronemus started experiencing stomach pain, she assumed it was a run-of-the mill problem. For about three weeks, she tried taking antacids and changing her diet.
Then the pain got more severe, and Hyronemus thought she was having a series of panic attacks. “I took puffs of my inhaler and lorazepam to make the anxiety go away,” she says. But that didn’t work. Instead, Hyronemus suddenly felt “a grabbing, squeezing pain with electric shocks radiating from my chest up through my face and jaw and ears and all the way down my shoulders to my fingers.” After the pain lessened, her arms and neck were “very weak.”
Hyronemus went to the emergency room, where a doctor told her she was having a heart attack and rushed her to a larger hospital better equipped to care for her.
Ten days after her heart attack, Hyronemus tells Yahoo Life that she still has pains in her chest and that she is scared “every minute of every day” that she will have another heart attack. She says that she cries “a lot now thinking about how vulnerable I am. Thinking about my mortality.”
Immediately after leaving the hospital, Hyronemus quit smoking and started eating better. However, she doesn’t feel that her doctors gave her enough information about how to prevent another heart attack. “I wish there was a ‘new mom’ type of package that you receive after you have a heart attack,” she says. “It should include all kinds of information and a ‘what to expect’ book so people aren’t just on their own trying to navigate the rest of their lives.”
But Hyronemus is committed to figuring it out. She is starting cardiac rehabilitation and is connecting with other young heart attack survivors. “I am very thankful to be alive. I live with a lot more purpose than I did before,” she says.
Why are more young people having heart attacks?
Earlier onset of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, as well as smoking or vaping, are contributing to the increase in young people having heart attacks, according to Rana.
Dr. Mary McGowan, chief medical officer of the Family Heart Foundation and co-director of the Lipid Clinic at Dartmouth Hitchcock Heart and Vascular Center, tells Yahoo Life that the “sharp increase in heart attacks in younger people … seems to be the result of an increase in obesity, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet.”
She adds that genetic disorders, such as the one Wray has, are another major contributing factor to heart attacks. “It’s important for younger people to have conversations with their family to find out their family’s heart health history” so that they can be screened, make lifestyle changes and start preventive medication before a heart attack strikes, McGowan says.
Heart attacks symptoms can feel like indigestion, muscle strain and panic attacks
Symptoms of a heart attack mimic many other conditions, so “people who are having a heart attack commonly believe they are having indigestion, muscle strain and even a panic attack,” McGowan points out. “When profound fatigue is a major symptom, a person might think they have a flu.”
That’s what happened to ShantaQuilette Carter-Williams, a mother of three, when she was 39. For about six years, Williams, who describes herself as “healthy and active,” experienced intermittent chest pain. But multiple tests came back clear, so she didn’t think she needed to worry about having a heart attack.
In 2018, Carter-Williams says she started feeling unwell but thought she had the flu. “I was extremely fatigued,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I can't even explain how tired I was.” She also had nausea and shortness of breath. Her illness lasted about two weeks before her symptoms suddenly changed.
Out of nowhere, she had shoulder pain on the right side, a sharp pain down the left side of her jaw and chest pain. “I felt like someone was stepping on my chest,” she says. “It was a lot of pressure in the chest area.”
After dismissing her symptoms for two weeks, she knew something was seriously wrong. Her oldest daughter took her to the emergency room. There, Carter-Williams was diagnosed with a heart attack. She started taking medication as well as “eating better, exercising” and asked her employer “to reduce my caseload to mitigate stress.”
However, nine months later, at age 40, she had a stroke. Carter-Williams recovered but describes the process as “intense and very difficult. I had a lot of crying days but never felt like giving up.”
Four years later, Carter-Williams still has some weakness on her left side but is doing well. “I only worry about the things I can control and living the best life I can with the time I'm given on the earth,” she says. “I make sure that I'm proactive in my health, and I educate others to do so.”
Rana agrees that more education about heart attacks is needed, saying that “as a society, we need to focus more on prevention” and prevent risk factors such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension from developing in the first place.
After her own heart attack, D'Souza-Siebert has been encouraging other women to trust their bodies. “If something doesn't feel right, advocate for yourself,” she says. D'Souza-Siebert adds that she was “lucky” she survived, but says that no woman should have to rely on luck to survive a heart attack.
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