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Signs of women's heart attack: Symptoms easy to ignore

Lankenau Medical Center January 20, 2022 Heart Health

Throughout her 31-year nursing career, including 24 years as a cardiac nurse at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health, Penny Bivens, RN, has advocated for her patients. But nine years ago, she downplayed her own troubling signs of women's heart attack and symptoms.

Penny was 43 at the time, with no family history of heart disease and a healthy lifestyle. She was vigilant about taking her medications to manage high blood pressure and thyroid issues. But in the winter of 2012, she found herself feeling tired all the time. "I started needing a cup of coffee after my second shift, and I had some minor jaw pain and shortness of breath," she recalls.

The importance of seeing a doctor for signs of women's heart attack

Even though she doubted anything was seriously wrong, Penny decided to get checked out and got a clean bill of health from her primary care doctor. Erin O'Malley Tysko, MD, her cardiologist at Lankenau Heart Institute, part of Main Line Health, performed an EKG and stress test and found no abnormalities.

But Penny's symptoms kept returning.

"Exercise would give me feelings of indigestion," she says. She even went to her local emergency department twice, once with heart palpitations and once with chest pain. Doctors attributed her symptoms to stress or a muscular issue.

Don't downplay signs of women's heart attack

In April 2012, Penny was carrying laundry when she was hit with chest pain that she describes as "crushing."

"By this point, I was downplaying everything," she says. "I didn't want to go to the emergency department again. Instead, I called Dr. O'Malley-Tysko's office and asked if she could see me the next day."

This time, Dr. O'Malley-Tysko suspected something was seriously wrong.

"There was nothing unusual on her examination or her EKG, but the symptoms Penny described were very concerning," she says. "I felt she needed to have a diagnostic heart catheterization urgently."

Dr. O'Malley-Tysko adds that women who are actively having symptoms should not delay seeking care, even overnight. "If something doesn't feel right, you should go to the emergency department.

"It's also important for doctors to really listen to what patients are saying," Dr. O'Malley-Tysko says, noting that women, in particular, often hesitate to get care while their symptoms are occurring. "They say they would be embarrassed to be told it's nothing, but if you wait until symptoms subside, it can make getting a diagnosis more difficult. A delay can also have serious consequences, including having a heart attack or stroke."

Widow-maker leads to risk of massive heart attack

The catheterization, performed the next day at Lankenau Medical Center by interventional cardiologist Timothy Shapiro, MD, revealed a 90 percent blockage in Penny's left anterior descending (LAD) artery. A significant blockage in this artery is often called a "widow-maker," since it carries the risk of a massive heart attack. Dr. Shapiro accessed the LAD through the radial artery in Penny's wrist and implanted a stent to restore blood flow.

"I could feel the difference right away," Penny says. After two weeks of recovery, her energy level went back up, and her chest pain was gone.

Today, Penny, now 53 and nurse manager of the Cardiothoracic Step-Down Unit at Lankenau, is an even stronger champion for her patients.

"If you don't feel like yourself, find a doctor you trust who takes the time to listen and understand, and don't stop until you get the care you need," she says. And, if you are having concerning signs of women's heart attack, don't delay care. Go to the emergency department right away.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a Lankenau Heart Institute specialist, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.