When I woke up a few hours later, he was no better. We
did not recognize this final clue — that unrelenting chest
pain that will not go away no matter what you do — requires
a trip to the hospital. In fact, it was at this point I noticed that
he was doing something that looked like holding his breath.
So I asked him, “Steve, are you short of breath?” “No,” he
replied, “it just makes my chest feel better if I expand it a
little.” Denial. And I’m embarrassed to say that I believed
him, or at least I didn’t want to upset him by pushing him to
do something he didn’t want to do, so I went back to bed.
At 8 a.m. — NINE HOURS after his initial
vomiting — I convinced him to go with me to our local
doctor’s office. They immediately hooked him up to
an electrocardiogram (ECG) and called an ambulance:
“You’re having a heart attack, Mr. Blake — you should’ve
gone to the hospital hours ago!” While we waited for
the ambulance, Steve leaned over to me and whispered,
“I’m not having a heart attack — it’s just acid reflux.” I
followed the ambulance to the hospital and was met by
the trauma doctor who said, “Mrs. Blake, your husband is
having a heart attack. We’re taking him to the cath lab —
the damage could be significant. You really should have
come in HOURS ago.” As they wheeled Steve past me to
the cardiac cath lab, he whispered, “I’m not having a heart
attack — it’s going to be fine.”
Well, it wasn’t fine. His left anterior descending artery
was completely occluded and not delivering any blood to his
heart muscle. The cardiologist was right — the damage was
significant. In the cath lab, they cleared out the obstruction
and placed a stent in the artery. After a year of cardiac rehab,
he was left with a 30 percent ejection fraction (normal is 55-
70 percent), a daily fistful of pills, a new heart-friendly diet
and an implanted defibrillator.
So what have we learned?
TIME IS OF THE ESSENSE! The longer you wait, the
more heart muscle dies. Dead heart muscle cannot grow
back; it creates permanent scars and lifelong health issues
— if the person survives. ANY unrelenting chest pain not
relieved within 15 minutes is a trip to the hospital. You may
be told that it’s acid reflux, but who cares?
ANY person can have a heart attack — men, women,
active people as well as sedentary people, young and old.
Don’t become “blind” to a heart attack simply because the
person doesn’t fit your idea of what a heart attack victim
Signs of a heart attack are not always what you
think. They can include nausea, vomiting and sweating,
along with the more recognizable chest pain, jaw or shoulder
pain and shortness of breath.
Denial is a natural response — for both the heart attack
victim and family and friends. Even experienced healthcare
workers can miss the clues when it comes to their own
family members. Don’t climb on board the denial train!
INSIST the person go to the hospital to get checked out. He
or she may be irritated with you, but who cares? I’d rather
have an irritated husband than a dead husband.
Steve’s heart attack — and our embarrassing lack of
appropriate action — prompted me to get re-educated.
I took the CPR instructor training course through the
American Heart Association and have been teaching CPR
classes to all kinds of people going on five years now. As a
CPR instructor, I can teach my students what to do in the
event of cardiac arrest; I can teach them how to give chest
compressions and breaths, and how to operate an AED. But
I also tell them this story of how we did everything wrong,
so that one day they’ll recognize a heart attack in progress
and react quickly.
By considering your own biases — your own ideas of
WHO might have a heart attack and WHAT a heart attack
looks like, even your own tendency toward denial — I hope
that you won’t be fooled like we were. Make that call to 911
“Within 15 minutes” … NOT “After nine hours.”
Unrelenting chest pain
that will not go away
within 15 minutes, no
matter what you do,
requires a trip to the
CPR instructor Susan Blake with husband and survivor, Steve