Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection

My New Life as a Cardiac Patient: A story of survival

January 9, 2016

When you hear the words “cardiac bypass graft” what images come to mind?  For me, if I am truly being honest, a year ago I would have said a person likely male in their 60’s or 70’s probably struggling with weight management and a smoker.  I never thought I would find myself in an emergency situation that would require double bypass surgery to save my life.

To give a brief personal history, I started gymnastics when I was four and quickly fell in the love with dance.  I have been a dancer all my life and a very active person.  In addition to dancing I have always worked out conditioning by walking, running, resistance work, and lifting weights when possible.  Healthy eating habits have been maintained, not a heavy drinker and never a smoker.  I obtained a Master’s degree in counseling from CMU and have a career as a high school counselor in Michigan.  Basically I thought I was doing everything right.

In the summer of 2015 I was a 36 year old mother of a 2 year old boy and wife.  In June after a yearly physical my doctor gave me the go ahead to start trying for a second baby.   She even ran a blood test to check thyroid function and vitamin levels.  All tests came back perfect.  On June 30th my grandmother passed away, I was sad and grieving but she was 100 years old and our family was prepared for her passing.  On July 1st 2015 I woke up to a normal day alone with my son, we ran errands preparing to go home the next day for funeral events.  I put my son down for a nap at noon and went down stairs to rest on the couch deciding to skip my daily workout (thank God).

I laid on the couch and moments later my heart started to beat irregular and I got the sensation of having the worst heart burn EVER!  I was struggling to breathe and felt nauseous.  I grabbed for my phone knowing I needed to call my husband who worked 40 minutes away.  And made my way to the front door.  I feared I would pass out in my house alone and no one would know what was occurring or that my son was in the house.  As I walked outside my neighbor, (who had suffered a heart attack 6 months prior) was outside in his driveway.  I waved him over to our yard and told him “I can’t breathe, Sammy is asleep in bed and Greg is on the phone”, and collapsed to the ground.  My husband called 911 after my neighbor recognized the symptoms I was having and telling my husband it did not look like a panic attack.

When the paramedics got to my house the EMT insisted I walk back into my house, he asked lots of questions but once they hooked me up to the EKG, everything changed.  The paramedic looked at his colleague and said I think she is having a heart attack.  At that point they scooped me onto the gurney and rushed me to the ambulance were they gave me aspirin and nitro tablets.  They asked me three or four times what types of medication I was taking and if I used any illegal drugs.  I told them I take vitamins, that’s it!!

Fortunate for me the hospital had their best cardiac team working that day.  The doctor took one look at my EKG and said you are having a heart attack and we have to get into the cath. lab to see why NOW.  I was awake the entire time and remember the doctor looking at the screen during the catheterization and saying “I can’t place the stent”.  “We have to take in for surgery right now.”  The nurses looked at me and said “honey you are going into surgery now”.  I didn’t understand but knew my life would change forever.

Next thing I remember after kissing my husband goodbye was waking up in ICU with a breathing tube down my throat not being able to talk.  My husband and doctors explained to me that my coronary artery had spontaneously dissected and the doctor had to perform open heart double bypass surgery to save my life.  My head was swimming it took days, if not weeks for me to really understand what had happened to me.

Recovering has been a slow process.  Cardiac rehab has been super helpful physically but it is the mental component that has been a struggle.  My thoughts are consumed with trying to figure out why this happened.  Was it hormonal, is there a genetic link, or was it truly random?  I am grateful beyond words.  Seeing and holding my son, being with family and friends is truly a gift.  But I still find myself searching for answers.  Is it safe to have a second child?  Will this happen again?  And doctors cannot give me straight answers because so little is known about Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD).

I feel I was saved to bring awareness to this issue.  Lucky for me doctors at the hospital saw the severity of my condition, but so often SCAD women are turned away from ER’s and told they are likely having a panic attack and sent home.  I mean it just doesn’t fit the traditional “heart attack mold” for a healthy vibrant young female to be experiencing a heart attack.  More research needs to be done on SCAD and women need to know the signs and symptoms of SCAD so they can get help immediately.   For me I had chest pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, pain up the backs of my arms, and a sensation similar to heart burn.  70% of all SCAD cases happen to healthy women under the age of 50.