"I Didn't Know I Had a Heart Attack"
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"I Didn't Know I Had a Heart Attack"

Sharon Furlong Markey looks nothing like the big-bellied guy you probably picture being rushed to the ER for a heart attack. Still, she needed a triple bypass at age 38. Her story sheds light on a little-known form of this deadly disease.

"I Thought I Had Heartburn. It Was a Heart Attack."

Two years ago I was in the best shape of my life. I was 38 and biked regularly with my husband, Hugh, through the hills and fields near our home in Newtown, Pennsylvania. I went to the gym three days a week, and I had just completed a grueling three-month boot-camp workout program with a great group of girlfriends. I was fit, I was trim, and I was healthy. So when I found myself feeling nauseated and oddly fatigued one day in March 2006, I was a little surprised but not too concerned. After all, I'd spent the morning snacking on ham, super-hot salsa, and chocolate-covered strawberries left over from a dinner party I'd thrown the night before. I figured I had heartburn or maybe food poisoning. I sent Hugh, Claire (my daughter, then age 8), and Jack (my son, then age 5) to the movies, while I kept Madeline, the baby, at home, so I could try to recover from my overindulgence.

When I collapsed on the sofa to catch my breath, a sharp pain sizzled down my left arm. A pulled muscle? Something worse? Still pondering how salsa could make me feel so sick, I popped some Tums and literally crawled up the stairs and into bed to try to sleep it off. Hours later, the pain made me vomit. Back from the theater, my husband started Googling my symptoms. That's when the possibility of a heart attack came up.

I Didn't Fit the Profile of a Heart Disease Patient

Alarmed, I called a friend who's a cardiac nurse, and she assured me that it was probably the flu or indigestion. "Sharon, you simply don't fit the profile of a heart disease patient," she told me. "Don't worry! Go back to bed!" So that's what I did. But the next morning, I still didn't feel right. I called my doctor, who agreed to see me that day. She too thought I was having a bad case of heartburn. But, to be safe, she volunteered to give me an electrocardiogram (EKG).

I remember her looking at the results, confused. "The nurse is new; she must have done this wrong," she said. But a repeat test was nearly identical to the first. "The results are abnormal," she told me. "I'm sending you to the hospital for more complex heart tests." Since I was actually feeling better, I got in the car and drove myself to the ER. My doctor volunteered to phone Hugh while I called my mother to pick up the kids. I actually stopped the car on the way to argue with my mom. She was startled when I told her I'd had an EKG. "That means you had a heart attack!" she yelled. I bellowed right back, "No, you're wrong!"

At the emergency room, denial still reigned. As a nurse gave me my third EKG of the day and took a blood sample, he said, "It's probably indigestion." After all, my blood pressure was normal, my symptoms were mostly gone, and I was able to walk and talk. So I was floored when a few minutes later a cardiologist appeared at my bedside, telling me that I'd had a heart attack.

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a Rare Diagnosis

Say the words heart attack in a hospital and people spring into action. I was whisked to another floor and given more tests, which revealed that I hadn't had your usual heart attack, caused by a blockage. Instead, I'd had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. Two of my arteries had split, and blood was collecting inside my heart, causing the attack symptoms. SCAD happens only a handful of times a year, but up to 80 percent of the cases occur in young women. Experts have yet to fully understand why.

My Treatment: A Triple Bypass

The treatment options were alarming. At best, I was looking at bypass surgery; at worst, I'd be hooked up to an artificial heart and put on the waiting list for a transplant. I heard one of the medical staff mention the possibility of medevacing me to a different hospital. Another said she was surprised I was still alive. If I hadn't been drugged up on sedatives, I'm sure I would've totally freaked out. Thankfully, my husband got to the hospital just before I went in for surgery. I remember lying on the gurney with flashing monitors and wires all around me before they wheeled me in. Suddenly, Hugh appeared, walking right up to my side. He told me not to die. I said not to worry; I wasn't done bugging him yet.

I ended up having a triple bypass: Two blood vessels -- one removed from my leg and the other from my chest -- were used as pathways in my heart to bypass the damaged arteries and ensure healthy blood flow. The operation was a success, and during my eight-day recovery in the hospital, I felt euphoric simply because I was alive. But when I got home and endured six long weeks of bed rest, the elation turned to frustration and sadness. I couldn't do a thing: Playing with the kids, even lifting my 18-month-old, was impossible -- never mind folding laundry or climbing the stairs. Luckily, my mother and my friend Megan were there to help out.

Cardiac Rehab and Recovery

Two months after the attack, I began cardiac rehab -- a program of exercise, nutrition, and support to help my recuperation. Not only did it get me out of the house, but it gave me the reassurance I needed to start being active again. I saw gradual improvement in my strength and confidence, but later in the month I suffered a major setback after a near-fainting spell resulted in another trip to the ER. My arteries were in spasm and had closed up. No one knows why spasms occur, but after a year of trying different combinations of medications and supplements, my doctors concluded that my period and eating meat likely triggered the attacks.

Now I take eight medications and nine supplements each day to help keep my hormones and arteries in check. I swore off all meat, and that has helped me tremendously. And nearly a year after my initial hospitalization, I started exercising again. My doctor and I put together a plan that is slowly building up my endurance. I'm up to 40 minutes of running nearly every day. It's been a struggle, to say the least. I went from being able to do brutal 75-minute boot-camp classes to not being able to walk even halfway around our cul-de-sac. So even though I'm getting better, by my standards I'm not there yet.

To this day I'm dismayed by how little women know about heart disease -- and how little I knew as well. So I joined an organization called WomenHeart and attended the Mayo Clinic for training, and now I've made it my mission to help educate others. I speak to women's groups mostly, but sometimes strangers get my speeches too. Because carrying heavy things can still tire me out, I have a handicapped parking tag. Recently, after a visit to the grocery store, I saw a woman eyeing me -- and my hang tag -- in the parking lot. She angrily asked why I had parked there. I looked her square in the eyes and told her that I'd had a heart attack. She laughed in disbelief. On impulse, I pulled down my V-neck to reveal the 10-inch scar that bisects my chest. While she was apologizing profusely, I took the opportunity to give her a lesson about heart disease. I hope she drove away a little wiser.

To learn more about the unique way heart problems affect women, read our story about heart disease risks for young women.


Sharon's Heart-Healthy To-Do List

I used to be pretty health conscious. But since my attack, I am super-aware of doing things that are good for my heart.

Munch on more nuts, fish and veggies.

I'm always snacking on almonds, and I frequently serve salmon at dinner. Every night we have a salad as well as a steamed vegetable, to double up on the veggies.

Eat no meat and little salt.

For me, salt was a bigger sacrifice than meat. When I need a fix, I find that Mrs. Dash is a great substitute.


It's hard for me to reduce stress: My husband travels a lot, and my kids are young. But I do deep-breathing exercises regularly.

Keep moving.

When I'm exercising, music helps me to not watch the clock. My favorite workout tunes are by the Rolling Stones.

Stay motivated.

I don't need to look further than my husband and kids for inspiration. To think of not being here when they need me just breaks my heart. I'm not sure who said it, but my stay-healthy motto is "Our lives are not determined by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens; not by what life brings to us, but by the attitude we bring to life."

Reduce Your Heart Attack Risk

Genetics, biology, and family history are not under your control. But here's what you can do.

Quit cigarettes.

Female smokers, even the only-at-parties variety, increase their chance of heart attack by 124 percent compared to nonsmokers, according to a 24,000-person study. Male smokers have only a 43 percent increased risk. The difference may be due to an interaction between women's hormones and the smoke.

Prevent diabetes.

Vigilantly controlling blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes may not reduce the risk of heart disease, but what does: never getting diabetes, according to a recent NIH study. "Uncontrolled blood sugar is toxic to blood vessels, impairing their structure and function," explains Hannah I. Lipman, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

Lose belly fat.

If your tape measure stretches to 35 inches or more around your middle, trim down. Abdominal obesity is not only linked to several heart disease risk factors, such as hypertension and insulin resistance, but increases your chances for heart disease itself.

Make time for exercise.

Aerobic activity reduces your risk for diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. But you knew that, right?

Take the pill wisely.

Tell your ob-gyn about any family history of stroke, heart disease, or blood clots before filling your Rx, since the pill may up your risk. Some birth control pills can affect your cholesterol, so be sure to have your levels checked and discuss results with your doctor. Finally, "If you are on the pill to help with polycystic ovarian syndrome, have your lipid and blood sugar levels tested," Lipman says. "PCOS puts you at increased risk for heart disease."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2008.