January 31, 2023
My heart rate was approaching 190 in my last interval of my HIIT class. My goal for the summer and fall was to continue to get in the best shape of my life, and I was doing it. About 10 seconds before the interval ended I felt a sharp pain in my chest like claws grabbing my heart.
“I pushed myself a little too hard and I needed to cool down.”
I jumped off the treadmill and sat on a foam block in the corner. The clutching sensation became more noticeable as I continued to sit. Sharp pains began rolling down my back and upper arms, like icy rain pouring down on me. I took five more minutes to try to catch my breath, but it seemed impossible.
“Are you ok?” The trainer asked. “I must be having just a really hard time calming down.” I connected it to a stressful week at work.
I drove the 5 minutes to my home holding my chest and focusing on my breathing. I walked in the door doubled over and announced to my husband some thing was wrong. Within 20 minutes, I called an ambulance and arrived at the hospital nearest my house. The ER doctor said “we think it might be a panic attack.” I firmly cut her off before she could finish, “this is not a panic attack, something else is wrong.” The doctor looked at me and paused and nodded. I had a CT scan and an echo done of my chest and heart. Bloodwork was drawn and it showed some enzymes were elevated that should not be. The ER staff was trying not to panic me. The doctor said, “we don’t know why this pain is happening, but we think there might be a small chance that you have something wrong in the artery in your heart.” A short time went by until the cardiac team arrived at my bed and took me to the catheter lab.
I stared blankly at the gray drop ceiling as I heard the nurse say “we’re going to look in your artery. This procedure is something we do a lot, but there is a risk that something could go very wrong and you could die.” I weakly nodded.
The machine moved over me and centered around my chest while the doctor put the catheter in my wrist and snaked it’s way to my heart.
The procedure took about 30 minutes. They moved the massive machine from over my chest revealing the gray drop ceiling once more. The doctor explained that part of the wall of my artery tore, causing a blood clot which led to a heart attack. He placed 3 stents in my artery to open it back up.
Immediately, I asked “when can I go work out again?” The nurse and doctor smiled at me, and gingerly said “let’s get you recovering first and we can talk about all that later.”
My stay in the hospital with a tearful one. I felt extremely lonely, followed by bouts of anger. “How could this happen?”
The next six weeks were filled with tears and quiet indignation. People told me “I was lucky to be alive” but I didn’t want to hear it. “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” was my retort for the first month.
A few weeks later, I had come home from work with a scowl on my face, knowing I had yet another follow up doctor’s appointment tomorrow. My husband looked at me tearfully and said “I’m so happy you’re alive and that you are healing.”
I paused. I had not thought about the word “healing” before. Only the word “damage.” My SCAD had damaged my heart – this was true – but I did not think about the opposite end of the spectrum where I survived. And I was now healing.
I reflected on the team that had supported me and is continuing to support me in my rehabilitation. I was fortunate enough to be in a hospital with doctors who listened to me and were willing to explore all of the options before sending me home. I am privileged enough that I could advocate for myself and explain that this was not just a panic attack, and that the ER team took me seriously. I have family and friends that are able to support me, physically and emotionally as I heal. There are countless other factors that contributed to my ability to advocate for myself, and that others may not be so fortunate.
This kind of heart disease is uncommon, but it is not invisible. Awareness and advocacy about SCAD are key in knowing more about how to diagnose and treat it. I write this story now to allow my voice to be heard amongst researchers, professionals, doctors, and everyday individuals. We don’t know everything about how SCAD impacts people, but we do know the capability of words. Undeniably, there is grieving that comes with SCAD. Yet there is also a place for resiliency, love, and even, healing.