It was just a normal Friday. Our new baby Abigail was two weeks old. Earlier that day, I had taken all four of my children to the store and to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. I was finally starting to feel like myself again after a tough nine months of pregnancy. Later, as my husband Jeremy was driving us home, I started feeling funny.
I became uncomfortable and started shifting around in my seat. I put the AC on full blast. Suddenly, it felt as though an invisible person was pushing on my chest from the front and back at the same time—squeezing my heart. It wasn't terrible pain but very intense pressure. The right side of my jaw felt achy. My tongue and lips felt tingly. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get air in my lungs. I thought maybe it was some kind of residual problem from my C-section two weeks earlier. My mind quickly ran through all the scenarios of what could be wrong.
I told Jeremy to call 911 and get me to the ER. I began crying. It has always been my biggest fear to die young like my father. (He was only 30 when a brain aneurysm took his life.) I was terrified. Jeremy kept calm and reassured me that I was going to be OK, but he drove like a bat out of hell to get me to the hospital in minutes.
Once at the ER they gave me aspirin to chew and began putting IVs in both arms. I think Jeremy telling 911 ahead of arrival that I had a prior carotid dissection saved my life because the team went right to work. I've learned that a lot of young women who present with heart attack symptoms often get told they have anxiety or GI problems and sent home. A lot of them also don't go to the hospital.
The aspirin and heparin injection began to work and the pressure in my chest started to ease. The ER team did a quick EKG. Jeremy left to hand the baby off to my parents and then returned and stood by my side stroking my hair and comforting me. I was calming down. Everything was OK, and I began talking about going home. Minutes later, though, the room filled with concerned faces. I heard someone say the words "heart attack" and "ambulance.” I looked at Jeremy and said, "No no no no! Do more tests!" I was in total denial. I had no time for a heart attack!
But there was not a decision to be made or an alternative path to explore. We had no choices. This was happening, and we had only an hour to get my heart functioning before more severe damage would be done. The EMT team loaded me onto a gurney and into the ambulance, to transfer me to another hospital. It was pouring rain, and it was quite a scary ride, but the EMTs were very reassuring. They talked me through what to expect when we arrived at the hospital in downtown Louisville, KY, and actually were able to distract me by talking about our respective kids.
Once we arrived, the EMTs rushed me through the hospital straight into the operating room for angioplasty. Jeremy kissed my forehead and we said, "I love you." I'll never forget the fear in his eyes as I was wheeled in. I was scared I would never see him or my babies again.
I laid on the table and focused on breathing in and out. I felt so alone, even though there were a ton of people in the room. I had not turned to God in a very long time, but I felt compelled to pray. I began repeating in my head a simple prayer, "God please be with me. Please comfort Jeremy. Please help this team help me. Please let me be here to see my kids grow up." I repeated it over and over and over. I began to feel calm and intensely present.
The cardio team chatted away with one another while they injected various medicines into the two IVs to numb my right leg. A big X-ray machine hung above me and the cardiologist sat by my right side with a computer. He inserted a long catheter into the femoral artery in my groin then delivered dye. Next balloons were inserted to try to restore blood flow to my heart. Each time one was inflated it felt like another heart attack. The cardio team reassured me it was normal, but the pressure was so intense I couldn't help but cry out in pain. Finally the doctor said, "The balloons will not work. You have a tear in your coronary artery like the one in your carotid and we're going to have to stent it."
Two stents later, I was finally off to recovery. I found out I’d had a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a rare, sometimes fatal traumatic condition. It is not the type of typical heart disease, as most patients are young women with no risk factors in good physical health. It often strikes right after pregnancy, as well, like what happened to me. (I am 36; the average age of when SCAD strikes is 41.) My physician, OBGYN and cardiologist had no prior knowledge of SCAD. Thankfully, I went to the hospital and did not ignore the signs.
Healing from the angioplasty was hard. It was the most painful experience I've had—and I've had three C-sections, knee surgery and other surgical procedures! I was bruised from my thigh to my belly button for several weeks and had a large painful hematoma in my groin. I'm so thankful I didn't have to have a bypass like some of my fellow SCAD sisters. Comparatively, I've had it pretty good after reading about their experiences.
If you were to see me now I look perfectly normal. Sometimes I feel normal too. But every day is actually a constant struggle. I have to consciously remember to slow down. I'm used to going full speed, all day, every day, with my kids and my job, but right now that's impossible. I feel perpetually hungover and lethargic from the multiple medications. I have to be careful of how many times I go up the stairs at home, how much I lift, how long I'm on my feet, carrying Abby too long, how stressed I get and how much I exert myself in the heat. I have to say "no" more and ask for help more. It embarrasses me and makes me so frustrated.
There is little I can do to prevent another SCAD heart attack—it didn’t happen because of bad habits or clogged arteries. That's a pretty scary reality. At times, I feel like my body is a ticking time bomb and I'm just waiting on the next dissected artery to happen. I'm taking part in two research studies so hopefully down the road there will be more information available for other women who have SCAD.
Here are the silver linings: So many miracles came together to save my life. I'm here, and there is more for me to do. I have experienced renewed faith. I'm sure that's a bit cliched, but I'm OK with that. It’s also amazing how easy it is to make healthy choices now. If a dissection strikes again, I want to be the healthiest version of me, so I can have the best outcome and recover quickly. I now have an even bigger appreciation for all the wonderful people in my family, my community and my small circle of friends. I have a beautiful life.
I urge you to be sure you know the signs of heart attack, and if you feel unsure, go to the ER anyhow. If someone near you shows signs, urge them to get checked out. Carry an aspirin. And take time to appreciate all the daily blessings in your life. If you slow down and pay attention, they are all around you. Survival is a gift. Every day is an opportunity to live your best life, whatever that is for you.
Katie Adams is an insurance agent for Assured Partners and a mother of four in Shelbyville, KY.