Heartburn or a Heart Attack?
LHJ: Wow. You were in shape and you weren't a smoker -- do you have a family history of heart disease?
CT: No, no family history. I didn't have any of the other risk factors either. But I did have pregnancy complications, preeclampsia, years ago. I didn't find out until later that this is a risk factor.
When I talk to women now, they often ask about how to know if they're at risk. I just tell them to act now. Yes risk factors are important, but sometimes there isn't an obvious reason. The best thing to do is act as if you are high-risk. Start eating healthier. Start exercising. You don't want to be like me and wait until you have this massive cardiac event to find out. Unfortunately, we're often pretty low on our own priority lists. But you have to make time to care for yourself and to exercise, even if it means time away from your kids and your husband.
LHJ: Did you know you wanted to be an advocate? What made you start writing?
CT: I didn't know I wanted to be an advocate. But I was so gobsmacked by what happened to me, and the more I learned about it, the angrier I got. Your biggest risk factor for having a heart attack is having had a previous heart attack. So I knew I was in a high-risk place, and I wanted to know as much about it as possible. And also, I wanted to be sure that other women didn't have the same experience I did.
LHJ: What would you say is the main thing you know now that you wish you knew then?
CT: I think one of the main reasons why I believed the doctor when he said it wasn't my heart was because of my misconception of a heart attack. I thought of heart attacks as something that happened to men. When I pictured someone having a heart attack, I saw an old man, out on the golf course. One day he's out there playing a round, and he just clutches his chest and falls down unconscious. Someone calls 911. Then they come to do CPR and use the paddles to shock him. To me, that was a heart attack.
So when the doctor said it wasn't my heart it made sense to me in a way. Because even though it was horrible, I was fully conscious. I walked into the emergency room. I could talk. I went to work. And also, for example, my blood tests were fine, my EKG was fine and even a treadmill stress test was fine. And one of the problems is that a lot of the diagnostic tests that are used today for all heart patients have been developed decades ago. They were researched, designed and developed on male patients.
I tell women now: You know your body. You know when something is not right. Pay attention to that little voice inside of you! My little voice said to do something. But as soon as the doctor said different, I got out of there. And that was just denial. In hindsight, I look back and I think pain down your left arm is not a symptom of indigestion. I know that. Everyone knows that. But at the time, I was in denial.
Five months after my ordeal, I was accepted to the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women with Heart Disease at the Mayo Clinic. More than half the women I met there had been sent home too. One woman had been to the ER three times and sent home. She kept going back and saying to the doctors: "I don't care what you say, something is terribly wrong with me." After the third visit, the doctor suggested antidepressants. The fourth visit was for double bypass surgery. She was smarter than I was. A lot of women don't go back -- and they have deadly results.
You can read more about Thomas' story, and get regular updates from her on her blog at myheartsisters.org.