Heart attacks happen in young, healthy, active women
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Heart attacks happen in young, healthy, active women

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Carrie Anderson walks, bikes and participates in yoga several times a week. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are good. Anderson has no family history of heart disease. She is by all accounts healthy.

Despite her limited risk factors for heart disease Anderson had a heart attack nearly a year ago.
“It’s sort of hard to believe it happened,” says Anderson. “I remember thinking, ‘when I get to the hospital they are going to think I was crazy. I am 54 (at the time) and healthy. I’m not having a heart attack.’”

It all started on May 24, 2018 when Anderson started feeling a tightening across her chest. It would come and go throughout the day. Initially it was easy for her to explain it away.

“I remember telling my husband that night after my yoga class my chest was feeling weird and I must have pulled a muscle,” explains Anderson. “We even joked about how we were getting older and went to bed. When I woke up Friday the chest tightness was still there only this time it was more continuous. It didn’t hurt, I didn’t have indigestion and I had no reason to think heart attack symptoms.”

Anderson went to work. Later that morning her left arm started to feel heavy and using it took effort.
“That’s when I thought to myself, ‘gosh that sounds like heart attack symptoms – that can’t be right,’” shares Anderson. “I called my doctor’s office and explained to them what I was experiencing, and they told me to go to the hospital. I arrived at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital Emergency Room (ER) and described my symptoms. They put me in a wheelchair and from there everything went so fast. It didn’t take long for them to tell me I was having a heart attack.”

ER Arrival to Cath Lab

It’s a nationwide goal for ERs to open blocked heart arteries in 90 minutes or less. It’s called door-to-balloon time. St. Luke’s average is 51 minutes. The hospital’s fastest time at 13 minutes. Anderson’s time was 73 minutes.

“It was really fast,” recalls Anderson. “By the time my husband arrived I was going to have my blockage opened. They were right on it. It was mind-boggling how fast they went. I was still thinking they were going to send me home because I still couldn’t believe I was having a heart attack.”

Coronary artery dissection

“Carrie had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection or SCAD,” explains Richard Kettelkamp, DO, UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Cardiology Clinic. “The coronary artery is made up of three layers, when the inner layer tears that’s a dissection. The blood may pool and cause a sudden blockage of blood flow in the coronary artery causing a heart attack.”

According to Dr. Kettelkamp, SCAD is a rare condition and happens mostly in younger, healthy females, although it can occur in men. The cause isn’t well known although there are cases where a change in blood pressure, child birth or extreme exertion may cause a dissection. Dr. Kettelkamp placed two stents in Anderson’s artery.

“The challenge with SCAD is it happens in young, healthy individuals,” says Dr. Kettelkamp. “They tend to not think they could be having a heart attack because they eat well, exercise and have no obvious heart attack risk factors but any symptoms that seem like it could be a heart attack should not be ignored. It’s important to go to the ER right away because the complete blockage of the heart’s blood supply will end up in the death of the heart muscle, heart failure and in some cases possibly death.”

Back at home

After a two-day stay at St. Luke’s, Anderson went home but participated in cardiac rehabilitation for six weeks following her heart attack. She says it helped her understand the heart’s healing process, build strength and stamina.

“I am back to my regular exercise routine. I have upped it from four to five days a week and rarely skip,” shares Anderson. “It took about six months before I started to feel like myself again and didn’t think about my heart attack as much. It was a shock to think I was having a heart attack, but I am grateful for staff at St. Luke’s and all they did for me. It’s a great facility for cardiac care. I couldn’t have asked for better care.”

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Watch how women's heart attack symptoms may be different than men.