In my years as a prosecutor, I saw plenty of violence, including many deaths. Some were accidental, but some were the work of killers, even serial killers. I have always been fascinated by serial killers. How do they choose their victims? How is it that they can take a life so easily? I studied them, tried to understand their behaviour. None of that prepared me for the day I met a serial killer of a different sort - a medical one with the ominous name “the widowmaker” - that had come for me.
On Tuesday, January 13 2015, I suddenly became wide awake at 5am. I lay in bed with my eyes open for maybe a minute, thinking, “Hmm, this is weird,” and then, “I feel kind of funny.” Within about 30 seconds I rushed to the bathroom and threw up. I felt very cold and climbed back into bed with my husband and snuggled back under the covers. A minute later, though, I knew I was going to be sick again. I figured I was coming down with a virus, but it was strange how suddenly it had come on.
My husband, Tim, was concerned. He sat beside me, felt my cold, clammy forehead and said I just looked so pale. Then he whispered, “Let’s go to the emergency room.” I laughed. “Why?” I asked. He replied, “You could be having a heart attack.”
Tim’s father had died of a heart attack at age 64 after feeling the classic stabbing chest pain and heaviness in the chest that you always associate with a heart attack. But that wasn’t me. I was 46, I just had a bit of a bug, probably a 24-hour thing. I just needed a little rest. Tim wouldn’t have it, though.
And so 30 minutes later we walked into the emergency room at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where half-jokingly I said, “My husband thinks I may be having a heart attack.”
If you want to get past the first stage at the ER quickly, that is the way to do it. They walked me directly to the back and told me to have a seat. They brought over a portable EKG machine and hooked me up. When the results came back a few minutes later, the ER doctor said, “Hmm. Well, it appears to be a little abnormal, but it’s hard to believe you’re having a heart attack.” “I know,” I said, rolling my eyes and feeling embarrassed.
He asked me a bunch of questions. Nope, I don’t have chest pain. Nope, I don’t smoke. Nope, my cholesterol is normal. Nope, I don’t have any history of heart problems in my family. I exercise regularly. I eat well. I have never had a surgery or even been seriously ill. Gee, I have never even had an IV. I’m super healthy. He commented that I look healthy, am not overweight, in good shape. He decided to do another EKG in 10 minutes or so.
A bit later, with the results of that second EKG in her hand, a nurse looked at me and said, “Things are going to start happening really fast. In a couple of minutes there are going to be a lot of people in this room, moving very fast. I don’t want you to be scared.” I said, “Okay.” I wasn’t scared. I still felt fine and, as far as I knew, all was well. I didn’t feel sick anymore, or even funny.
The next thing I know, I was on a gurney with tremendous activity around me. One person was pulling off my clothes, another was sticking a needle into my left arm, another into my right arm. There were at least four other nurses and doctors moving around fast, doing I don’t know what. At that point, I started to cry. Suddenly I was scared.
From my right came a gentle voice. I looked over to a man in a white coat, who took my hand. “My name is Dr. Fredi. I am the boss of all these people. We are going to take you upstairs and see what is going on with your heart,” he said. “If there is something wrong, I am going to fix it. I’ll treat you just like a member of my own family.” I said, “Okay,” Tim gave me a kiss and, in a flash, I was off.
They took me to a big room where everything was white and there were bright lights, a lot of medical equipment and a bunch of people in scrubs. At least that’s what I recall. I remember people telling me, “Dr. Fredi is the best, and he will take good care of you.” Then I was out.
When I awoke, I was in a different bed in a different room. Tim was there. He told me that I had had a major heart attack, that I was in the process of having it when we went to the hospital, and that Joseph Fredi, an interventional cardiologist, had been able to stop it in its tracks. He literally stopped the heart attack while it was happening by suctioning out a blood clot and putting two stents into my right coronary artery through a tiny hole he pierced in my right wrist.
Fredi had taken me into the catheterisation lab and determined that my right coronary artery was 100 percent blocked, and the centre artery, called the LAD, was 70 percent blocked. LAD blockage is the problem they call “the widowmaker,” because it is the most frequent source of sudden death. It kills a lot of people, including Sopranos star James Gandolfini and newsman Tim Russert. (Comedian Rosie O’Donnell survived hers.) Doctors say it’s a true serial killer.
Plaque had ruptured in the wall of my right coronary artery, which caused the clot to form and can produce the sort of nausea that made me throw up. That was my only warning sign. If I had gone back to sleep that morning, as I had wanted to, I may not have awakened, and if I did, there probably would have been devastating damage to my heart. As it was, I had no damage.
When I sat down to write this story, I wondered where it should end. I guess the most important thing I can tell you is how it didn’t end. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States - with nearly 300,000 deaths a year - but I survived this serial killer. I just passed the one-year anniversary of my heart attack. I took a nuclear stress test the other day. My heart, Fredi says, looks perfectly healthy. There is no sign of scar tissue, and I’m able to lead an active life doing anything I want.
My good health is due to one thing: early intervention. Because my husband got me to the hospital so fast, Fredi was able to save me and save my heart. So my lesson is this: Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Just because you’re young and healthy, because you don’t smoke or drink, because you work out and you’re thin and you eat well and you’ve never had any medical problems and you have no family history, don’t think that you can’t have a heart attack. You can.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/22 Ketamine helps patients with severe depression ‘when nothing else works’ doctors say
Ketamine helps patients with severe depression ‘when nothing else works’ doctors say
2/22 Playing Tetris in hospital after a traumatic incident could prevent PTSD
Scientists conducted the research on 71 car crash victims as they were waiting for treatment at one hospital’s accident and emergency department. They asked half of the patients to briefly recall the incident and then play the classic computer game, the others were given a written activity to complete. The researchers, from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Oxford, found that the patients who had played Tetris reported fewer intrusive memories, commonly known as flashbacks, in the week that followed
3/22 Measles outbreak spreads across Europe as parents shun vaccinations, WHO warns
Major measles outbreaks are spreading across Europe despite the availability of a safe, effective vaccine, the World Health Organisation has warned. Anti-vaccine movements are believed to have contributed to low rates of immunisation against the highly contagious disease in countries such as Italy and Romania, which have both seen a recent spike in infections. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said it was “of particular concern that measles cases are climbing in Europe” when they had been dropping for years
4/22 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
5/22 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
6/22 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
7/22 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
8/22 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
9/22 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
10/22 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
11/22 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
12/22 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
13/22 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
14/22 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
15/22 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
16/22 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
17/22 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
18/22 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
19/22 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
20/22 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
21/22 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
22/22 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
They are still not sure what caused mine.
I would tell you to trust your instincts - except in this case my instinct was to chalk up my symptoms to something else and to worry about whether the doctors and nurses would think I was crazy. So I’ll say don’t trust your instincts, if your instincts are to wait and see what happens. When you just don’t feel right, don’t ignore it. Fredi says that 9 out of 10 women with my symptoms would not have gone to the hospital. I wouldn’t have gone either, if it weren’t for Tim.
Many women have no chest pain, no tightness, no pain in the arm or jaw until it is much too late. Many women suffering a heart attack simply “don’t feel right,” just as I did. So if that happens, don’t ignore the feeling and don’t worry about someone thinking you’re crazy. Get yourself checked out. The worst thing that happens is they send you home and tell you you’re fine. You can live with that.
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