Women’s heart attack symptoms more subtle

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories running on Tuesdays in February for American Heart Month of local residents sharing their heart stories.

CORTLAND — Sandra Cunningham almost missed the message from her heart. She thought it was her thyroid acting up again.

Instead, Cunningham had a blockage that required two stents to open up arteries to prevent what could have been a fatal heart attack.

“For me, the thyroid played into the heart. The thyroid did affect other parts, but I ignored that,” she said. “I didn’t look at the whole picture.”

Women having heart attacks tend to experience different symptoms than men do.

“Many women think the signs of a heart attack are unmistakable — the image of an elephant sitting on your chest comes to mind — but in fact they can be subtler and sometimes confusing,” according to Alexa Polinsky, marketing director for Trumbull Regional Medical Center

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort, according to Polinsky. But women are more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, such as back or jaw pain, shortness of breath and nausea or vomiting.

“It can happen to anybody, (even those who exercise and eat well),” Polinsky said. “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in women.”

Cunningham, 61, a mother of three from Cortland, said that even six years ago, she would walk 10Ks — 6.2 miles — while her husband ran them. Then came the thyroid issues.

“It just kind of took over my life,” she said. After a flare-up, she would be down for days with exhaustion. “And that covered up the heart issues.”

One day last August, she felt an odd pressure, the sensation of someone running fingers up and down her jawline.

“I thought it might be just stress,” she said. “A lot of life events happened all at once and women are caregivers. You (feel like you’ve) got to push through.”

The pressure finally abated and Cunningham went on her way.

A week later, she was taking the family dog to the vet — a stressful event in itself — when the fingers-on-the-jawline pressure happened again. Her daughter Alexis was home from college that day, so she called her for help.

“My daughter is in a sorority,” Alpha Phi at Bowling Green State University, Cunningham said. “One of the main philanthropies they do is women’s heart health. Heart health became a topic around our house.”

Alexis drove her mom to Trumbull Regional Medical Center in Warren.

“They went right to work, so efficiently,” Cunningham said. “They couldn’t find anything. They held me overnight.”

After a couple days of testing, doctors discovered that she had an 80 to 90 percent blockage at the front her heart. A catheter line was inserted through her wrist, and two stents were placed to open up arteries at the heart in what Cunningham called an easy procedure.

“Then I went home. He (the doctor) said, ‘Eat well and be active — but go to cardiac rehab, too.’ I got to rehab and asked, ‘How did I get here? How did I get into this club?’

“Physically, I was back to normal. Mentally, I wasn’t. I keep thinking that there’s something inside there that’s keeping my artery open. That’s why rehab is so good — it takes the fear out. You’re afraid to do anything.” Then you look around and see all the others working through it and you realize you can be back to normal, she said.

During cardiac rehab at Trumbull Regional, she was instructed on subjects such as what foods to eat, what exercises to perform and how she would be feeling physically and emotionally.

“It was such a good experience. You felt like you had somebody rooting for you,” she said.

She completed her rehab work, but continues to work out at home. And she has help. If she misses a day on the treadmill, her teenage son gets on his mother’s case. The support is important, she said.

The lesson she said she likes to share is this: “Pay attention to any symptoms you have and go get checked out,” Cunningham said. “With women’s heart health, it is hard. You can’t compare your symptoms with somebody else.

“If this goes on for a week, go get checked out,” she said.



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