I Had a Perfectly Normal EKG at My Check-Up—and the Next Day I Had a Heart Attack
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. 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. And 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.
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 pronto, 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.
All classic signs of a heart attack—but as I checked in to the ER, I half-apologized for presenting with symptoms that “…are 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.”
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 an emergency angioplasty. 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 ‘widowmaker.’ 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.
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:
If you have heart attack warning signs, every moment wasted can mean more heart cells are dying. The American Heart Association 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 measure of how long it takes for a balloon/stent to be inserted after a patient enters the ER or ambulance.
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 smart phone 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.
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