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Saved By The Whisper of My Heart

Caron with granddaughter Chloe
L-R - sister Ellen, Mother Lydia, cousin Jeff, and Caron
L-R – sister Ellen, Mother Lydia, cousin Jeff, and Caron

I remember like it was yesterday, but it was 46 years ago. At 13 years old, I watched my 39-year-old mother die of a heart attack.

Even at that age, I heard from someone, somewhere, that women’s symptoms present differently than men when having a heart attack. I couldn’t understand that if this was true, why didn’t doctors do things differently? Why did the doctor tell my mom that her hiatal hernia was acting up when she complained about her abdominal and chest pain? Why didn’t anyone do any testing to confirm if this diagnosis was true?

Forty-five years later and shortly after my 58th birthday, I was chatting with a friend on the phone when –– out of nowhere –– an odd electric current shot up both sides of my jaw.

I had never felt anything like it before. It was symmetrical, starting at the center of my chin, moving up both sides of my jaw to my ears. As quick as it came, within seconds, it quieted down to a residual dullness. Then came an ache in my upper back.

An odd location, I noted. A spot I’d never felt discomfort before. Not between my shoulder blades but higher, at the base of my neck.

As a nurse working in a hospital known for its cardiac care, I began a head-to-toe assessment. Discomfort in upper back, 2 out of 10. Jaw pain, initially sharp in its quick ascension, now a dull ache, loud enough to remind me it was there. I considered taking aspirin, yet as I pictured my medicine cabinet in my mind, I saw none. Maybe an anxiety attack, I thought, as I took in a deep easy breath. As much as I hoped it was simply anxiety, I knew it wasn’t. I was incredibly calm.

I continued with my assessment, checking for signs that we are told to look for with a heart attack. I had no shortness of breath. No chest pressure, squeezing or tightness. No pain, numbness or tingling down my left arm. No elephant sitting on my chest. No impending doom. I took a step back in my mind, attempting to see this objectively. Something was happening, that much I knew, but what?

Caron with friend Gwen in hard hats for athletic adventure in Costa Rica 2015
L-R – Caron with friend Gwen ready for athletic adventure in Costa Rica 2015

Sitting on the edge of my bed, I picked up my iPhone and googled, ‘Can you have a heart attack after a clean echo?’ It had only been a little over a month since I had a stress echocardiogram, receiving a ‘high five, perfect score, see you in two years’ from my cardiologist. This was the same cardiologist I began seeing in 2012 after my father died of congestive heart failure at the age of 80.

After many years of reckless, unhealthy living, I had shifted gears and did everything in my power to avoid what I assumed was the destiny of my mother’s heart attack. For the past 15 to 20 years, I haven’t eaten meat, dairy, sugar, or gluten. I stopped drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or doing drugs. My cholesterol and blood pressure are low, and I am physically active and I am at a healthy body weight.

“This cannot be my heart,” I said aloud to an empty room. Google said otherwise, and reality began to set in.

I thought of calling a friend of mine, a cardiac nurse, but I knew she would tell me to call 911 and I wasn’t ready for that. Still taking slow easy breaths, extremely aware of each moment, I thought of brushing my teeth, taking a shower, and driving myself to the hospital if this feeling continued. It’s only 2 miles down the road, I reasoned. Fortunately, as quick as that idea came, it left. It didn’t feel wise.

Despite some dampness when I touched my forehead, everything felt so subtle, almost imperceptible. My thoughts were so clear and concise. I thought of my 34-year-old daughter and 27-year-old son, still too young to be without their mom. I thought of my 1-½ year old granddaughter and all the adventures I want to have with her. I thought of my friends, my dreams, and of death itself. Oddly, I had no fear of dying but if I had a choice, I wanted to live.

And then the most important thought popped into my mind. I remembered that women’s symptoms present differently than men when having a heart attack. It occurred to me, no one ever says what the difference is. I considered, what if this is the difference? What if it’s as simple as a swift symmetrical electric current up the jaw that dulls as quick as it came? What if it’s just an uncomfortable 2/10 ache in your upper back nowhere near where you would think it would be?

It was with this thought, after 25 to 30 minutes of assessment, thoughts, and denial, I called 911. When the man answered, I calmly said, “I think I’m having a heart attack,” although still in disbelief.

Caron as a child with older sister Ellen and mother, Lydia
L-R – Sister Ellen, Mother Lydia and Caron

He asked the questions, “Are you having chest pain, pain in your left arm, jaw pain, sweating, shortness of breath?” I said yes to all his questions. Even as a nurse, I knew I had to lie. I couldn’t admit I had just a dull ache in my jaw and 2/10 upper back discomfort. As a woman, I couldn’t take the chance of not being heard.

As it turned out, the cardiac catheterization at the hospital showed I was indeed having an MI, myocardial infarction, a heart attack. They found no plaque in my arteries other than the small piece that exploded unprovoked off the side of my artery, blocking my right coronary artery 100%.

I have no risk factors other than genetics and if I did not know that women present differently than men when having a heart attack, I could’ve easily gone about my day, hoping this weird feeling would pass, dying along the way.

Women may experience typical signs of a heart attack, such as pain or tightness in the chest or arm. Most often, though, the symptoms tend to be subtle. Flu like symptoms, nausea, vomiting, unusual fatigue, heartburn, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or dizziness. In the expectations and busyness of life, we can deny our intuition, ignore what our bodies are saying, and push through, tending to ourselves when everyone else is taken care of. STOP. LISTEN. ACT.

Two years have passed, taking me on a transformative journey –– physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Initially I faced depression, anger, grief, and powerlessness, kicking and screaming all the way. I felt betrayed by my body, having treated it so well for the past two decades and still, it was not enough. I was also scared to push myself physically, despite my cardiologist’s urging.

Over time, with deep introspection, reflective and therapeutic writing, and the support of so many that love me, I ultimately could embrace the lessons, value and responsibility offered me. Through what seemed like an ongoing dance of acceptance and denial, acceptance has taken the lead.

Today I am working on my memoir. I’m taking my family on a trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic to celebrate my 60th birthday. I’m enjoying the richness and intimacy of my friendships. I’m taking my now 3-½-year-old granddaughter on adventures and anticipating the birth of my second grandchild.

And with the deepest of gratitude, I am speaking to groups, in person and on podcasts, writing blogs and magazine articles, doing whatever I can to educate all the women and the men who love them how women present differently than men when having a heart attack.

Caron 2024
Caron 2024

 

Photos of Caron with her granddaughter, Chloe (the featured image), and Caron 2024 courtesy of Meghan Thomas.

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Caron is an RN, Breathwork Facilitator, writer, and a lifelong seeker of self-discovery. She worked extensively with people in grief and end of life, having the opportunity to present a TEDx Talk, Permission to Grieve. She enjoys hiking, frisbee, dancing and playing with her 3- 1/2-year-old granddaughter. She lives in Syracuse NY.

11 Responses

  1. Extremely important article! The saddest part of it was that you had to lie to get the help you needed. So glad you listened to the still, small voice!

  2. Thank you so much Caron for sharing this journey of yours. I bet, as a result, you save lives other than your own. Much appreciated and best wishes!

  3. Caron, my mother and my sister died of sudden heart attacks in their early 50’s after several years of being patted on the head and sent home with anti anxiety meds by physicians. Autopsies showed that they both had experienced heart attacks prior to the one that killed them. My mother died 3 days after passing her physical for a life insurance policy. Her EKG was normal. I’m both so impressed that you actually lied to get the attention you needed, and appalled that you know, as a woman and a medical professional, that your symptoms are not likely to be recognized as lethal by you, or by the rest of the medical community. Thank you for your story!

  4. I hope many women, and men who know women, will read this article and take note. Having to lie about symptoms to fit those of men, makes it even more difficult for women to get the care they need in a timely manner. Too many doctors dismiss women’s symptoms as “in their head” with disastrous results. It’s more than time for medical professionals to realize men and women have different disease symptoms. When this does not happen, women die.

  5. These often untold or minimized medical experiences are crucial to hear, especially when involving differential diagnoses between men and women. Thank you for telling your story, Caron, and for intentionally using your experience to save the lives of others. Wishing you a lifetime of health and adventures to come!

  6. Thank you for sharing this vital information! Caron thank you for writing about your personal experience with heart disease, I know this will resonate with so many people. Your kind voice will now be what many women, and those who love them, hear when faced with these symptoms.
    I personally am grateful you listened to your inner voice and Acted!
    You have so many adventures to experience ❤️

  7. At 71, preparing for hip replacement, I was told I had Afib. Upon testing I was told there are several issues that were never diagnosed. Now under cardiologists care.

  8. Thank you for highlighting the serious issue of women’s health. I’m glad that you were proactive and that you recovered.

  9. So glad you understood the varied symptoms of women and men having cardiac pain. As a nurse and diabetes educator for nearly 30 years, I especially appreciate this article. Even patients with diabetes need to be aware they can have a silent heart attack.

    Thank you,
    Denise

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