Her name was Mary Jean and she leaned over to talk to me as I waited for orientation on my first day of cardiac rehab. “Will you be joining us?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I had a heart attack last Sunday, and I left the hospital on Wednesday.”
“Oh,” she said, and paused. I didn’t wait for her to ask what I guessed was coming.
“I’m 37,” I volunteered. But she didn’t say I was too young to have a heart attack, or even act that shocked or surprised. She told me that she was 86, had had bypass surgery and now had a new valve and a pacemaker. And then she said, “You’ll like it here. The people are very nice.”
They are, and I do like it. Even though the effort is light, it is exercise and movement and it feels good. I’m supervised, monitored, checked, re-checked, and scored. Someone tells me what to do, when, for how long, and at what intensity. Perfect.

We work out in a class (I’m in the MWF 3 p.m. group) and everyone knows each other; they’ve been together for weeks. They are all at least two decades older than me. Three men and one other woman.

Today was my second day. While we were on the recumbent bikes, Patrick (who had bypass 9 weeks ago), leaned over and said, “You were cruisin’ pretty good there on the treadmill,” and I shrugged and smiled.
“Well, I was a runner until about a week ago,” I said. (At this point the physiologist/trainer monitoring the screens with all our heart rates on it piped up “and you will be again!” Love her.)

“You didn’t have heart surgery did you?” Patrick asked.

“Yes, I had a heart attack and now I have a stent.”

“But you’re too young!”

“Yep, I’m a poster child for it can happen to anyone,” I said with a smile, my new stock response for the shocked. Obviously and unfortunately I am not too young and neither are the many others like me. I saw this fact on a poster in the heart clinic: “62% of all people living with heart disease are under 65.”

A few minutes later Patrick asked me if my symptoms were indeed different because I’m a woman and I ended up telling the story to the whole group. That the pain started Friday (maybe even Thursday) and I took Advil and explained it away for two days. That it hurt in my back, between my shoulder blades and spread to both arms and shoulders, even my hands (had it been the left arm only, things may have moved faster). That it took nearly 10 hours to diagnose even at the hospital, because every test — EKG, CT, X-ray, echocardiogram — came back normal. The only signs were the blood enzyme test (and overtraining was even discussed as a culprit there), the pain, and my family history.

I don’t mind telling the story and I hope people share it so that other women listen to their bodies and advocate for quick, accurate diagnosis and treatment. I would like to imagine the trainers telling their friends, or my fellow patients telling their daughters, so that if a woman they know has a heart attack, she too will be joining us at rehab.

We’re very nice, and she will like it.

Comments

  1. Jen –

    Wow! I’m blown away by your story. As I started reading your post, I thought I must have missed something – when did Jen have a heart attack? Then I realized it was only your 3rd post and your heart attack was just a week or so ago.
    Hope you are doing better and I look forward to reading about your journey.

  2. Glad to hear that you’re well on the way to recovery! My sister e-mailed me a link to your blog as I had a similar experience last year at age 38. Following an unrelated surgery, my EKG was slightly off so the nurse ordered blood enzyme tests over a period of time. The test results were trending in the wrong direction so I had a heart ultrasound. Doctors were sure that I had broken heart syndrome (yes, this is a real condition) because I didn’t appear to have any other symptoms. One CT scan later I was told that I had a 99% blockage in my LAD artery, otherwise known as the widowmaker. A lot to swallow when you think you’re healthy!

    Scary thing is that no one had any substantial recommendations on what I should do to change my lifestyle so this wouldn’t happen again. If only you could do something about bad family genes.

    The good news is that this was one of the best things that has happened to me! It gave me an excuse to make myself a higher priority and allowed me to balance my family and my career better than ever before. It also renewed my love of cooking and experimenting with new recipes.

    Enjoy your cardiac rehab sessions. And yes, you will be kicking some butt when you start running again and the oxygen is flowing like never before!

  3. Wow, Amy, what a great story! Thank you so much for reading and for posting this comment. I’m on a mission to get the word out to women so that heart disease isn’t such a shock or surprise to them. Thanks again! Jen

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  1. […] year after I finished cardiac rehab, I joined the hospital-affiliated gym and signed myself up for personal training. I knew from rehab […]

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