How Doctors Misdiagnosed Chest Pain as an Anxiety Attack

Sherese Powers, a 32-year-old mom of two from South Carolina, was told that the constant chest pain she experienced came from anxiety. It turned out to have a much more serious cause. Here, she tells us about her experience.

The Beginning of My Chest Pains

When I first started having chest pains, I assumed it was from stress. I was working as a certified medical assistant full-time and going to nursing school while caring for my two young children as a single parent. Balancing it all was rough.

The pain in my chest—which started in January 2020, when I was 30—came at least two times a week, lasting an hour or more each time. The chest pain was so intense that it'd bring me down on all fours. I tried aspirin and Tylenol to help relieve the pain, but it continued.

Because the pain felt like a severe case of heartburn, like a burning sensation, I'd even drink milk, have a lot of water, and take acid reflux medicine to ease the sensation, but none of those remedies worked. Sometimes during these episodes, the left side of my arm would tingle and start to feel weak.

I figured my hectic life was causing the pain. But I didn't ignore it; I made an appointment with my primary care physician. Thing is, when you schedule a doctor's appointment, you don't always get in right away. So by the time my scheduled visit came, I wasn't experiencing chest pain at that exact time.

It was hard for the doctor to determine what was going on because in his eyes I looked completely normal. I did my best to describe the pain severity and frequency. "Well, you're a single parent. You're working full-time. It's most likely anxiety," he said.

Desperate for Answers

I went [back] to my doctor a couple of times over the next few weeks complaining of the same chest pain. Each time, I was told it was anxiety. And honestly, after you hear it so many times, you start to believe that maybe it is actually anxiety. I was prescribed anxiety medication, but that didn't work either—the pain persisted.

The chest pain would come at random times. One time it happened when I was shopping at the dollar store. Another time it happened when I went out to eat with other nursing students.

I also had an episode at work: After finishing lunch, I started to sweat and needed to sit down. My coworkers and manager all knew about my chest pain, so when I told them it was happening, they took my blood pressure, saw it was a little elevated, and told me to go to the emergency room, which I did. But I think the hospital must have seen my primary care physician's diagnosis of anxiety in my medical history, and they just chalked up my pain to anxiety yet again.

Because the pain was so severe and persistent, plus the fact that the anxiety medication did not help, I knew it was more than anxiety. I knew doctors were wrong. But you never want to hear the worst-case scenario. So when they said, "We didn't find anything, it doesn't seem like anything is wrong with you, it must be an anxiety attack," I was grateful for that. If they're telling me it's nothing serious, that means I don't have to stay for tests and could go home to my children. But in the back of my head, I knew that my symptoms weren't normal.

Over the next month or so, I went back to my primary care doctor a couple [of] times for chest pain. He finally referred me to a cardiologist, who ran an MRI, a CT, and a stress test during which I walked on a treadmill. The cardiologist found nothing wrong at the time.

Losing Consciousness

Then on April 7, I woke at 3 a.m. with chest pains. I called my dad, who lives five minutes away and is up at that time for his job, and I asked if he had any aspirin or Tylenol. He didn't, but he offered to go to the store to pick some up, as he knew how painful my chest pain could be. I told him no, it was fine, I'd try to go back to sleep until I had to get up for work and get the kids ready for school. When my alarm woke me up at 6:30 a.m., I felt a little different—I was having shortness of breath.

I explained to my manager I wasn't feeling well and that I'd be taking the day off. All along I've been told that these chest pains were no big deal, so I thought I could use the day to just take it easy and let the feeling pass. But it was the height of the pandemic, and my manager said that since I work with patients, I had to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to work the next day.

I called my brother and asked if he could drive me to a testing site and watch the kids while I was inside. And truly, I don't remember anything after that phone call to him. I don't remember him coming to get me; I don't remember him driving back and forth between different hospitals as he got the runaround for where to go for the COVID-19 testing. I was awake, but I was incoherent.

As my brother was driving to the correct COVID-19 testing hospital, he looked in his backseat and saw that I was losing consciousness. At this point, he ditched the COVID-19 test and took me to the emergency room instead. He wasn't allowed in due to COVID-19 protocols, so he dropped me off, gave the staff his phone number, and told them to call him when I was ready to be picked up. He thought it'd be a quick visit, assuming that I was having an anxiety attack just like the doctors had been saying for the past few months.

So when six hours passed and there was still no call for him to pick me up—and no response from me to any of the texts he had been sending me—my brother got through to a doctor. "We need verbal consent over the phone to perform surgery or she won't make it through the night," the doctor told my brother.

I had apparently had a massive heart attack and was now in heart failure, meaning my heart wasn't pumping blood as well as it should. Doctors aren't sure why this all happened: I don't have a family history of heart disease, and I don't have risk factors like a history of smoking or being overweight.

Waking up in the Hospital

I don't recall anything about my time in the emergency room. But later I found out that they were going to discharge me with a diagnosis of an anxiety attack. Then someone—I'm not sure who—walked by my bed, saw how I looked, and told doctors that they didn't think I was having an anxiety attack. I was sent to the catheterization lab, where they did tests on my heart and discovered that I'd had a massive heart attack, and the left side of my heart was in heart failure.

I had a blockage in my left ventricle. My ejection fraction, which is a measurement that tells how much blood the heart pumps, was less than 15%—severely below the heart's normal pumping ability range of 55% to 70%.

To get my pumping ability up, they implanted a left-ventricular assist device, or an LVAD, during my open-heart surgery. The device helps my heart pump blood to the rest of my body. I still have it, and I carry the pump's control unit and battery in a backpack that I now wear every day.

After my surgery, I didn't regain consciousness until the middle of May. When I woke up, one of the first things I looked for was my computer so I could log on to nursing school. I hadn't yet known what had happened to me; I didn't realize I'd missed out on the last two months of nursing school. Then I heard one nurse tell another nurse that the 30-year-old woman in the bed came in with chest pains and had a massive heart attack. I still had a tube down my throat, so I couldn't talk to ask her what she meant—She can't be talking about me, I thought.

But it was me. Doctors explained what had happened, and I realized I had missed out on the past few weeks of life, including seeing my kids. Because of the pandemic, my children weren't allowed in the hospital, and I could only FaceTime them as I was recuperating.

The first time my kids and I video chatted, I had a tube down my throat and a feeding tube in my nose. Whenever they'd say something, I couldn't respond; I was just quiet. At the time, my son was five and my daughter was nine; they didn't know what was going on. I couldn't wait to be able to see them.

A Long Road to Recovery

My recovery wasn't easy. The heart failure cut back the normal blood flow to my kidneys, so my kidneys began shutting down. To get my kidneys functioning, I was put on dialysis, a treatment that helps remove and prevent a buildup of waste, salt, and extra water. I was on dialysis for two or three weeks, and the process was taxing, lasting from morning until the afternoon.

I had to complete physical and occupational therapy, learning how to walk and dress myself. Doctors said the therapy would take at least 10 to 14 days, but I pushed myself to finish in six—I needed to be with my kids. When that was done and I got home, I had to start cardiac rehabilitation to get my heart strength back up. Once I had enough strength, I went back to nursing school after taking a medical leave. I finished up and graduated in July 2021. Since September, I've been working as a licensed practical nurse.

It's been nearly two years since my heart attack and heart failure, and I do everything I can to enjoy life to the fullest, from going to work to playing with the kids. I wake up every morning thankful for a second chance. Along with help from my LVAD, I manage my diet and regularly see my cardiologist to make sure my heart is healthy. I have no more pain.

Still, I know I shouldn't have reached this point. When something is wrong, you want people to listen. I'm hurt that I wasn't believed, [and] written off as having anxiety. If I would've been listened to, maybe my heart issues could have been caught sooner, and I would have avoided this altogether. Closer analysis and further intervention might have meant getting to the bottom of all this earlier, possibly preventing what I went through. Still, I don't blame anybody—everyone is human and can miss things.

There are two people who I know God put into my life to save me. One is the person who walked by my hospital bed and insisted I get further testing. The other is my manager. Had she not required that COVID-19 test, I would have stayed home waiting for my chest pain to pass, as usual. Plenty of times prior, my dad would ask if I wanted to go to the emergency room during one of my chest pain episodes. I would turn him down, saying why bother if I'd just get sent home again? I am grateful, and I'm blessed.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles