A few weeks ago, as he was walking his dog around his neighborhood, my friend Jerry experienced pain and pressure in his chest. He’d forgotten his cellphone, so he continued up the hill to his house, stopping four times to catch his breath before arriving home.
Once he was inside the pain subsided, and he went about his daily business.
Later that week Jerry and his wife went to their gym for a yoga class. His wife commented that he was sweating profusely throughout the class, which was unusual for him.
The chest pain came and went over the course of a few more days. Then, as Jerry described it, his “teeth began to hurt”; it was likely more accurate that he was experiencing jaw pain.
The next day his wife was working from home, and Jerry’s discomfort was acute enough that he suggested maybe they ought to go to urgent care.
His wife called and related his symptoms to the urgent care staff, who told her to take her husband directly to the emergency room at the hospital.
Once there, Jerry was seen by the hospitalist as well as a cardiologist. They monitored Jerry’s blood pressure, which was 207/100, and conducted a series of tests that led them to order an angioplasty to repair or unblock blood vessels.
As it turns out, Jerry had the worst kind of blockage: It’s called the widowmaker. Fortunately, doctors caught it in the nick of time before he suffered an attack.
Heart muscles need a constant supply of blood. When something cuts off the flow, you have a heart attack. Without oxygen, the cells in your heart muscles start to die in minutes.
A widowmaker is a big blockage at the beginning of the left main artery or the left anterior descending artery (LAD). They make up a major pipeline for blood. If blood gets 100% blocked at that critical location, it’s almost always fatal without emergency care.
Jerry’s LAD was 95% blocked, right at the beginning of the vessel.
The doctor placed three stents in Jerry’s arteries, two in the LAD artery and one in another artery.
A stent is a tiny mesh tube that props open an artery. When a coronary artery (an artery feeding the heart muscle) is narrowed by a buildup of fatty deposits called plaque, blood flow is reduced.
Stents help keep coronary arteries open and reduce the chance of a heart attack.
Jerry is now resting at home but will soon go back to the cardiologist to learn about lifestyle changes he will need to make to prevent further plaque buildup.
I asked Jerry if I could write about his situation so that others might be more open to acting when they experience symptoms of a heart attack. He agreed, saying, “If it helps one person not to procrastinate like I did and get checked, then by all means, use my story.”
Warning signs can include:
Pain, pressure, squeezing or fullness in the center of your chest. This may come and go.
Pain in your arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Feeling like you can’t catch your breath.
As Jerry explains, “I am in my 60s. I never thought about a heart attack. I certainly never thought this would happen to me.”
According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, “About half of all heart attacks are mistaken for less serious problems and can increase your risk of dying from coronary artery disease.”
Symptoms can feel so mild and be so brief they often get mistaken for normal discomfort or a minor problem, and thus they’re ignored. People can even feel completely fine afterward, which further adds to the chance of missing the warning signs.
Jerry was not paying attention to the warning signs. He wasn’t making the connection.
And because his symptoms came and then disappeared, he was relieved when they vanished and did not track them when they reappeared.
Paying attention to the little things your body is trying to tell you can help prevent an attack and significant damage to your heart.
To learn more about a how a widowmaker heart attack can occur, go to myheart.net/articles/the-widowmaker and watch the eight-minute video.