By Jennifer Sellers
At 56, retired OB/GYN Carole Saltzman, MD, was in overall good health. However, there were a few warning signs. She had a long history of high blood pressure, which she had recently had difficulty managing due to treatment of a back condition. In addition, her lipid panel from her last checkup showed unusually high cholesterol numbers despite the fact that she had normal cholesterol levels for years. And there was her family history — Dr. Saltzman’s father had his first heart attack at 55.
Yet when Dr. Saltzman started experiencing unusual symptoms — symptoms that can be common in women who are experiencing a heart attack — the pieces didn’t come together at first.
“Three months before the heart attack, I had extreme exhaustion,” said Dr. Saltzman. “I would sleep for 8-10 hours and still feel so tired I would require a daily nap. Yet, I would often have difficulty falling asleep or getting back to sleep. I had no exercise tolerance and got easily winded. I also started feeling really nauseous and would be drenched in sweat. Before this I would hardly even sweat at the gym; now I was sweating doing nothing.”
Dr. Saltzman saw her internist, who referred her for a stress test. The results of the test were negative, so Dr. Saltzman thought that her symptoms were due to acid reflux or some other cause.
The next day, she set off on a road trip with her family to take her son back to college in Illinois. During a stop in Indianapolis, Dr. Saltzman started experiencing the classic symptoms of severe chest pain, profuse sweating, nausea and shortness of breath. Fortunately, she was near a heart hospital and was able to receive care right away.
After returning home, Dr. Saltzman saw Todd Hansen, MD, a cardiologist with Mission Heart and Asheville Cardiology Associates. “The fact that Dr. Saltzman experienced a major cardiac event following a normal stress test is not unheard of,” said Dr. Hansen. “Around 10 percent to 15 percent of people who undergo the test will have a false negative result.”
Because women often delay seeking care, and because their symptoms can be atypical, Dr. Saltzman, who is now fully recovered, has made it her goal to educate women on heart disease and heart attack.
“A lot of women experience heart attack symptoms and think they are reflux or anxiety,” said Dr. Saltzman. “Or they don’t want to be a nuisance. Twenty-five percent of women will die with their first heart attack and therefore must be vigilant about their health.”
Common Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
- Extreme exhaustion
- Chest pain
- Neck pain
- Throat pain
- Arm pain
- Shortness of breath
Todd Hansen, MD, is a cardiologist with Mission Heart and Asheville Cardiology Associates.