Amy Cavaliere was just 35 when she woke up one morning feeling like something was off with her health. “I had a heaviness in my chest, and I was having trouble breathing,” she tells Yahoo Life.
Cavaliere says she told her husband she wasn’t feeling well but thought that her symptoms were likely due to a panic attack — something she had never experienced before. “My husband kept insisting that I needed to go to the hospital, but I was mad at him,” she recalls. “I wanted no part of that. I have three kids, and my focus was to get them to school.”
But Cavaliere says her husband called 911 after she started to hyperventilate and developed a gray tint to her skin. Cavaliere says she was still hyperventilating when the ambulance arrived to her home. While she doesn’t have a strong memory of what happened next, Cavaliere says she was told that she went into cardiac arrest once she was in the ambulance — as she was insisting that she was “fine.”
Cavaliere was given a shot of epinephrine, aka adrenaline, and “came back quickly, before going into full-blown cardiac arrest and flatlining.”
She was then given CPR, which continued as she was wheeled into the emergency department, and for 45 minutes after her second heart attack. “I was shocked with a defibrillator 10-plus times because they couldn’t regain my heart rate,” she says. Finally, her heart rate recovered, and she was put in a medically induced coma. Testing revealed that she had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a condition that happens when a tear forms in a blood vessel in the heart, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Cavaliere was transferred to another hospital, noting that doctors “were not confident in my brain health after everything that had happened.” She was in a coma for nine days, and, while doctors eventually determined that she would be OK mentally, she developed “really severe double pneumonia” and had one lung collapse. “That almost killed me,” she says. Eventually, she started to recover.
Cavaliere’s story is terrifying, and it raises a lot of questions about the signs of heart attack in women. These can differ from those of men, Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “Classically, women will have the usual symptoms that you hear of that are present in men, particularly chest pain,” he says. “But women will also have atypical symptoms more frequently or have them as their primary complaint.”
While women do experience the traditional heart attack symptoms such as chest pain or pressure, discomfort in the arms and breaking out in a cold sweat, the AHA notes that they’re more likely than men to have less obvious symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and neck, jaw or back pain. Other subtle signs include feeling dizzy or lightheaded and unusually fatigued.
“The reason for this is still somewhat unclear,” Tadwalkar says. “It comes down to differences in the sexes, but we don’t quite understand why.”
Doctors are getting better at detecting these subtle heart attack signs, though. “There are more women in medicine now than ever before, and that’s certainly played a big role,” he says. “We’ve also conducted a lot more research that’s involved women. As a result, we’ve learned more and have more awareness now that these differences exist.”
However, like Cavaliere, women experiencing heart attack symptoms wait longer than men to get help, according to a 2018 study. The study’s authors say that may be “due to the myth that heart attacks usually occur in men and because pain in the chest and left arm are the best known symptoms,” rather than the more subtle signs that can signal something is seriously wrong.
Cavaliere now sees a cardiologist every six months, takes medications to control her cholesterol and has to follow exercise restrictions to make sure she doesn’t overexert her heart, which no longer pumps at the bottom. “I’m not in heart failure, which is great after everything I’ve experienced,” she says. “I’m just making sure I’m listening to my body and am not being so stubborn about my health anymore.”
Cavaliere, who has partnered with the AHA to raise awareness and is now a certified CPR trainer in her community, is urging women to take action when something feels off with their health. “So many women and moms today are so distracted and busy with life, jobs, children and family that we don’t pay attention to what our bodies are going through,” she says. “Listen to your body and advocate for yourself.”
Despite her initial protests that day, Cavaliere says she’s glad her husband insisted on calling for help. “He saved my life.”
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