Trisha Newell figured if she called 9-1-1 she'd be fine by the time the ambulance arrived. So she didn't call. She waited instead.
The 46-year-old had just finished a rigorous workout at Prairie Life Fitness. For years, she'd avoided fried foods and loaded up on fruits and vegetables. Her friends considered her the healthiest person they knew. "I thought I'd conquered my family history of heart issues with my lifestyle choices," she remembered. She was even wearing her "Life is Good" t-shirt that day.
But she felt worse and worse. First she was short of breath. Then her right arm started going numb from the shoulder down. "This is not looking good," she told herself. She didn't want to overreact. But she could feel her heart beating out of rhythm and her other arm going numb. Remembering a first aid video she'd seen in college where a man died because he didn't call help, she approached a Prairie Life employee. "I asked, 'Would you please call 9-1-1? Would you please call my husband?'" she said. "I told myself, 'So what if I'm embarassed?' This was too much like what I'd seen in that video."
She felt an uncomfortable ache in the area of her heart. Then the cold sweats started. "I didn't want to open my eyes. I was very weak," Newell said. "I still didn't believe I could be having a heart attack. I was the healthiest person I knew." She became alarmed when she overheard the medics saying they were taking her to Alegent Creighton Health Bergan Mercy Medical Center because it was the closest emergency department.
She learned later that her condition deteriorated even more—she had no pulse and doctors had to shock her three separate times, sending an electric shock to her heart to try to restore a normal rhythm.
Even after she opened her eyes, the Bergan team's work wasn't done yet. Newell was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab, where InterventionalCardiologist Himanshu Agarwal, M.D., performed an angioplasty within minutes. It's a lifesaving treatment for the most serious types of heart attacks, in which a catheter with a small balloon tip is inserted and inflated to open a blocked artery. Then a stent is implanted to prop open the artery.
"I felt very, very calm," she remembered. "Dr. Agarwal was swift and knew what to do. I felt very safe. Everyone had a job to do. They were very calm. I thought, 'I am in perfectlygood hands here'."
An Alegent Creighton Health advanced practice clinician named Lyndsey Netz stayed by her side. "She seemed like an angel to me," Newell said. "She talked to me, made me feel safe."
Newell's close call should remind everyone that heart disease and heart attacks are still the number one killer of women as well as men, said Dr. Agarwal. "Not even younger and fitter women are immune from heart attacks or heart problems."
Newell had taken good care of herself because she knew there was a family history of heart issues. Her father—who had high blood pressure--died at 52 from a stroke. His oldest brother died of a heart attack in his 40s. Later, two of her uncle's daughters would die from heart attacks before they reached 50. Another uncle had heart attacks at 26 and 36 but is still alive today after changing his lifestyle—eating healthier foods and giving up smoking.
"While I didn't smoke or drink and I ate pretty well, I didn't regulate my stress," Newell said. "I thought occasional periods of exercise and eating healthier than my friends would trump that family history. I guess I was wrong!"
Newell began cardiac rehabilitation and slowly built up from not being able to get up off the couch to working out three times a week at rehab, where she was monitored. "The nurses were great," she said. "It was like seeing my girlfriends three times a week!" A dietitian reviewed her eating habits with her and found two big pitfalls: she ate out too much and consumed too much sodium. She cut back on both and added more fiber. "I spent the first six weeks reading labels. Now sodium burns my mouth."
She changed her workouts, adding cardiac exercises to her weightlifting. She's careful not to stress about work, or to take on too many projects. "As a woman I tried to do too much. I wasn't realistic about how much I could do. I always thought rest and relaxation were something you saved for retirement."
Her definition of success changed. "I realized it as I was riding down the street in the ambulance," she said. "I redefined success as connected, loving relationships with the people I love." Her children were 11 and 13. Newell slowed down for her sake and theirs. "I took my husband for granted. I took my kids for granted. They almost lost their mother."
Newell's own mother was very ill; in fact, the day of her heart attack, Newell was scheduled to meet with hospice. "I started spending every possible moment I could with my mom from that point on."
Dr. Agarwal was pleased with the adjustments she made and said it's important for all women to learn from her experience. "Don't ignore your symptoms. Heart attack symptoms in women can be atypical (see the common early warning signs below) so your suspicion should be high," he said. "Take care of your heart. Follow aggressive prevention and a healthy lifestyle."
That's exactly what Newell's doing, even more than before. "I still can't believe this happened to me," she said. "I'm lucky all the right people were there that day. How lucky am I to get another chance?"
Do You Know the Common Early Warning Signs?
RealAge.com ranks the common early symptoms:
Unusual fatigue 71%
Sleep disturbances 48%
Shortness of breath 42%
Chest discomfort 30%
The Facts About Heart Disease and Women
*Over one-third of female adults have some form of cardiovascular disease
*When a heart attack does strike, women under 50 are twice as likely to die as men
*Heart disease causes about one-third of deaths in women every year
*Of the women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease, two-thirds may have had no previous symptoms
*Women tend to experience less obvious symptoms of heart attacks, like jaw pain, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness or fatigue