I Had a Perfectly Normal EKG at My Check-Up—and the Next Day I Had a Heart Attack

Here's what I want other women to know about the test, and the subtle symptoms I tried to ignore.

On the day of my annual physical, I wasn't worried about my heart. At 63, I was a non-smoker with a BMI of 20 who got (mostly) regular exercise and took no daily medication.

A blood test the week prior had shown my total cholesterol was 187, with a good HDL/LDL ratio and low triglycerides. According to Medline Plus, a healthy total cholesterol level for women over the age of 20 is 125 to 200mg/dL so I was within a healthy range. The report included this reassuring notation: "lower relative cardiovascular risk according to American Heart Association/Centers for Disease Control guidelines."

At my check-up, my blood pressure registered at 110/70, which was under the 130/80 measurement that Medline Plus says indicates a risk of stroke, heart attack, and other medical issues. I had an electrocardiogram (EKG), which showed no abnormalities. I left my doctor's office with a clean bill of health.

That was on July 7th.

On July 8th—in a scenario that sounds unlikely even for fiction—I had a heart attack.

Strange Chest Tightness

I awoke that morning with vague jaw pain. Was it sinus-related? I also had an odd, persistent ache in my left arm. Could that be from the booster shot I had the day before?

While I mulled over the possibilities, I noticed a tightness in my chest—not exactly painful, but uncomfortable and strange. My first impulse was to give it time, have my usual cup of coffee, and wait for the symptoms to subside.

My daughter had a better idea. She told me to get dressed, and she would take me to the emergency room.

On a short drive to the hospital, the chest discomfort seemed to be getting worse. I also had a dry, throat-clearing cough, and I had begun to feel queasy.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), warning signs of a heart attack include chest discomfort or pain; breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting, or lightheadedness; jaw, neck, or back pain; discomfort in one or both arms or shoulder; shortness of breath.

I was experiencing some of these warning signs—but as I checked in to the ER, I half-apologized for presenting with symptoms that, as I explained, were "probably due to a vaccine I got yesterday." Nonetheless, I was whisked to a treatment room quickly. And within minutes, a doctor sternly rejected my Google-inspired diagnosis: "This is NOT related to any shot," I was told.

A Deadly Blockage

That was the first hint things might be serious. My second clue was seeing the energy in the room change; there was a sudden sense of urgency. But ironically, it wasn't until a nurse put an aspirin under my tongue and said, "You're going to be fine," that I began to panic—as in, You mean, '"being fine'" is even a question?

Within minutes, I was wheeled into the hospital's cath lab, where a cardiac team got ready to perform emergency angioplasty. According to the AHA, an angioplasty is a procedure in which special tubing with an attached deflated balloon is threaded up to the coronary arteries. The balloon is inflated to widen blocked areas where blood flow to the heart muscle has been reduced or cut off. I would later learn that a bit of plaque had erupted in my Left Anterior Descending Artery (LAD), causing a blockage. A stent was needed to open the blood vessel and restore blood flow.

In lay terms, I was having a heart attack—and because it occurred in the LAD, it's the kind they call the 'widow maker.' No surprise why: This is the biggest of the three arteries that supply blood to the heart—so a blockage in the LAD can be particularly deadly.

donna-blass heart-attack woman health heart EKG negligence doctor hospital cardiology
Courtesy of subject

On to Recovery

My recovery protocol was fairly standard: A few days in the hospital, regular visits to a cardiologist, and a regimen of medications designed to prevent another attack.

Of course, the looming question: Why did a "low cardiac risk" person like me have such a major cardiac event? Could stress be to blame? A troubling family issue had reached a crescendo earlier that week. Was family history a factor? Relatives on my father's side succumbed to heart-related ailments, though not until they were in their 80s.

My doctors said my heart attack was an unusual case, and there's no way to pinpoint the cause with 100% certainty. But I learned a crucial lesson: low risk doesn't mean no risk. My experience taught me a few key things I wish I'd known sooner:

Minutes Count

If you have heart attack warning signs, every moment wasted can mean more heart cells are dying. The AHA advises calling 911 immediately since an ambulance often gets you to the hospital fastest; plus, EMS professionals can start treating you as soon as they arrive. Hospitals are rated on their "door-to-balloon time," a performance measure, explains the AHA, that refers to the time from a patient's arrival at the hospital to the time when he or she undergoes percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), a mechanical means of treating heart attack by restoring blood flow to the heart via the balloon/stent.

An EKG Has Limits

It measures heart rate and rhythm—but it doesn't necessarily show blockages in the arteries. My EKG the day before didn't detect anything. Now that EKGs are available with some smartphone apps and fitness trackers, it's important to know what this test can and can't do.

Heart Attacks Aren't Always Obvious

Not everyone experiences the "chest grabbing" drama shown on TV. Symptoms can be subtle and not overly painful—and women's symptoms may differ from men's.

All cardiac symptoms—including chest tightness; shortness of breath; pain in the jaw, arm or back—need to be taken seriously, even if you think you couldn't possibly be having a heart attack. Sure, it might be embarrassing to take action and discover it was just indigestion or stress. But despite the cliché, nobody has ever died of embarrassment.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles