Survivor wants women, diabetics, seniors to know heart attack symptoms can be atypical
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org February 28, 2014 7:54PM
Peggy Bennett, 55, attributed her symptoms to the flu but she'd really had a heart attack. | Supplied photo
Updated: April 3, 2014 6:56AM
Think you know what a heart attack looks like? You may be wrong.
One day last summer, Peggy Bennett returned from a 2-mile run with an upset stomach.
Bennett, a captain with the U.S. Air Force Reserves for 29 years who regularly works out and has no real family history of heart disease, blamed her nausea and vomiting that day on a bad food combination.
“I had a salad with ranch dressing before the run,” she said. “When I came back in, I drank a chocolate protein shake.”
When the 55-year-old University Park mom suddenly felt a burning sensation at the base of her throat, she was more annoyed than anything.
“I thought the combination didn’t agree with me,” she said.
So she sat down and waited for her stomach to settle. But when she began throwing up and sweating profusely, she figured she’d caught some kind of flu bug and went to bed.
The next day, and for two days after that, she called in sick. Her supervisor at her medical technology job at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey expressed concern. So did her two daughters.
Finally, when she was still feeling weak on the fourth day, she drove herself to Urgent Care in Flossmoor. Tests were run and Bennett learned she’d had a heart attack.
“I was in shock,” she said. “It never entered my mind.”
Dr. Sabrina Akrami, a cardiovascular medicine physician at Ingalls, said most people are not aware of atypical heart attack symptoms.
“Everyone pictures the classic image — a guy clasping his chest in pain,” she said.
But for women, diabetics and older patients, heart attack signs can mimic the flu.
“We’re trying to get the message out about these symptoms,” Akrami said.
Atypical symptoms can be vague and can include: nausea, vomiting, general fatigue, jaw pain, upper arm or shoulder pain, indigestion and dizziness, she said.
She advises people who have flulike symptoms to get checked by a doctor.
“Don’t be embarrassed; no one will laugh at you,” Akrami said.
Sometimes the only way a doctor can tell if a patient has had a heart attack is through medical tests, she said.
“Once someone has a heart attack, there can be permanent muscle tissue death if not treated right away,” Akrami said. “The sooner you seek treatment, the better.”
Akrami said doctors aren’t sure why women, diabetics and seniors can present heart attack symptoms differently.
“That is something we are still studying,” she said.
But, she added, the best way to protect yourself is through regular checkups, preventive screenings, a healthy diet, regular exercise and avoiding smoking.
“Also,” she said, “be aware of any family history of heart disease.”
Because she’d quit smoking eight years earlier, Bennett said she had no idea her heart was in a compromised state. But an angiogram quickly confirmed that she had two completely blocked coronary arteries.
Bennett ended up having double-bypass surgery. Now, she watches her diet more closely, cutting out a lot of fried food, and she continues her regular exercise regimen.
After 12 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation, she returned to work in October.
“Now I feel pretty good,” she said, although the blood thinner she takes daily makes the cold weather almost unbearable.