Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection

The Beat Goes On

January 21, 2020

Over Memorial Day Weekend of 2017, when my newborn son was just 7 weeks old, I had a heart attack.

I had just returned to work from a brief maternity leave and was looking forward to a long holiday weekend of baby snuggles and a nice family picnic. However, instead of spending that time on a blanket in the warm sun with my boys, I spent it in a cold hospital room in the cardiac ICU recovering from a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).

At that point, I was a healthy 32-year-old woman. I had no prior health issues and always aced every medical exam. In fact, I had been awarded an elite status on my life insurance policy, a designation given only to 5 other very healthy customers.

This was my first (and, now, probably only) pregnancy and delivery, and it has been textbook. No complications aside from a little anemia, and my son was born healthy and alert. I have a master’s degree in public health so I knew the importance of maintaining a healthy diet, and despite having office jobs, I managed to fit in some exercise here and there. I had no idea a heart attack was even possible.

I woke up on that Saturday morning feeling completely normal. I nursed my son, Sebastian, and went to lie back down in bed. Immediately I felt a tightening in my chest and a burning sensation that radiated up my throat and into my jaw, resulting in a pain that felt like I had been clenching my mouth closed as hard as I could for hours. Then my left arm started going numb. I didn’t know exactly what was happening at first but I knew something wasn’t right. I stood up and started pacing around my bedroom, telling my husband, Nick, that I didn’t feel right and I was afraid it was something serious. Although I’ve had a few panic attacks that have felt somewhat similar, this felt different. It felt wrong.

We decided to go to urgent care in case it was a panic attack. There, they determined that I had really high blood pressure, which is very atypical for me because my blood pressure is usually on the lower end and my EKG results were abnormal. The clinician gave me an aspirin and sent me to the emergency room. He didn’t say it but it was pretty obvious that something severe was happening.

In the ER, several blood tests revealed elevated levels of troponins. This really alarmed the doctors because they had never seen these results in someone so young and healthy. They moved me to the ICU, and after a cath lab that revealed no clogs or other blockages and an angiogram, the doctors concluded that it was a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). Due to lack of other risk factors, they also determined it was likely pregnancy related. I was incredibly lucky because they believe the dissection was quickly pushed back into place on its own and began repairing itself. I’m incredibly grateful for my body’s abilities in that sense.

I was in the hospital for three days – my entire Memorial Day weekend break – and was released with a good prognosis. After a year of doing really well on the concoction of heart-related medicines, I am now down to one low-dose aspirin per day. My physical health has been great, and my mental health continues to improve. As you can probably imagine, I experienced a great deal of post-traumatic anxiety after the SCAD. For several months, every little pain or twinge sent me into a panic thinking it was happening again. Luckily, I’ve seen a great therapist and have a good handle on my anxiety and I’m living a happy, active life with my son and husband. And now, each year on the anniversary of my SCAD, we celebrate with a beautiful picnic to honor the one I missed in 2017, as well as the lifetime of more picnics I’m looking forward to.