This past weekend I walked in the American Heart Association’s Heart and Stroke Walk in Portland with the Women’s Healthcare Associates’ team. Increasing awareness of heart disease, particularly among women, is very important to me.
My mother died suddenly at age 60 from heart disease. She was visiting friends in California, and called me one Saturday morning from a church retreat. She asked me what she could take for heartburn. She had never had heartburn before. Knowing her family history of heart disease, I asked her to go to the ER, especially if antacids didn’t work. But they were out in the woods and she didn’t want to worry her friends by asking for a ride to town. She drank an entire bottle of antacid on her way back to LA the following day, then called me again because it hadn’t worked. The pain had been keeping her up at night for two nights. She finally went to the ER Sunday evening, and was totally distraught to learn that she had had a heart attack. A little nitroglycerin and her pain was completely relieved.
She was scheduled for cardiac catheterization Monday morning, and I flew down to be with her. When I landed, she told me that everything had gone well…there was a small area of damage to her heart but there was nothing left to unblock. She was surrounded by friends and I should take my time getting to the hospital.
When I walked in the door to her hospital room, the staff was starting chest compressions, and I never spoke with her again.
My mother never thought that she would have heart problems. Her mother had Alzheimer’s, and she was prepared for that. Her father, however, died from his third heart attack at age 52, and her brother had just undergone bypass surgery. But they were men. That kind of thing didn’t happen to women in the family. Ironically, when I returned to her house, I found numerous pamphlets and mailers on her coffee table about the new Red Dress campaign for awareness about women’s heart disease. I wonder, all the time, if she had been aware and had gone for care earlier, if the damage wouldn’t have been so bad to cause her death. We will never know.
As a physician, daughter, sister, mother and friend, I feel like it’s important to share my mother’s story. We’ve talked about the importance of exercise and quitting smoking, the risk factors for heart disease and simple things you can do to prevent heart disease. But the message I would like women to take from my mother’s story is how to recognize the signs of heart attack, which often come on slowly and are far less dramatic than what most expect.
Symptoms of Heart Attack in Women
Women can experience the ‘classic’ symptoms of shortness of breath or uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest. These symptoms can range from mild to severe, and they may come and go. But women are far more likely to have these symptoms that can easily be missed as warning signs of a heart attack:
- Unusual fatigue
- Nausea or indigestion
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Abdominal discomfort that may feel like indigestion
- Discomfort described as pressure/ tightness or an ache in the neck, shoulder, or upper back
These symptoms may also precede a full-blown heart attack, so call your doctor right away if you are experiencing them.
As opposed to heart attack, the signs of stroke do come on quickly, but can sometimes be mistaken for vision problems:
Symptoms of Stroke in Women
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
If you are experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, seek medical care immediately. Don’t wait in hopes that they will just go away or be “something else.” The most important factor in your survival is getting medical care right away. Every minute counts.
See a healthcare provider every year to assess your risk for heart disease. The physicians, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners of Women’s Healthcare Associates can help. Contact an office to schedule your annual women's wellness exam today >
Dr. Brandi Vasquez is a board-certified OB/GYN physician and surgeon in the Oregon City and Canby offices of Women’s Healthcare Associates. She obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Washington and then attended OHSU where she earned her MD and PhD. She returned to Oregon to practice after completing her residency at Duke University and a Global Health fellowship in Moshi, Tanzania. In addition to advocating for increased awareness about heart disease, her clinical interests include minimally invasive gynecologic surgery (including robotic surgery), sexual health, international work and education.
Recognizing Heart Attack, Stroke and Angina, WebMD
Go Red for Women, American Heart Association
Keeping Your Heart Healthy, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists