Silent Heart Attacks - Symptoms & Risk Factors of Silent Ischemia
I Had A Heart Attack At Age 35—Just One Week After Having A Baby
She was healthy—until, all of a sudden, she wasn't. After a trip to hell and back, Danielle Denlein is thriving and has dedicated herself to helping others avoid a similar ordeal. This is her story.
At age 35, my life seemed perfect. My husband and I had just brought our newborn daughter, Lily, home from the hospital. I was recovering from a C-section, but I felt so good the next day that I decided to make banana bread. Lily and our toddler son, Hudson, were napping when the pain began.
At first, I thought it could be heartburn. But as the ache got stronger and radiated down my left arm, I realized it was something worse. "I think I'm having a heart attack," I told my mom, who'd flown out from the East Coast to our home in Orange County, CA, to help with the kids. "You just had major surgery," she said. "Go lie down. You're doing too much."
By then, pain was stabbing through my chest. I asked her to call 911.
Paramedics rushed me to the hospital, where a doctor asked me about risk factors for a heart attack. "I don't have heart disease. I don't smoke. I'm healthy," I told him.
But the EKG showed otherwise. I'd had two spontaneous coronary artery dissections, or SCADs. My arteries had suddenly torn in two different places, causing 95% blockage in the left anterior descending artery of my heart. The doctors told me they were prepping me for emergency surgery.
As I was being wheeled down the hallway to the cath lab, my husband, Shawn, rushed into the hospital and kissed me. It was our seventh wedding anniversary. Inside the lab, I was terrified but had only one thought. I grabbed the cardiologist's arm and said, "I have a newborn at home. You have to save my life."
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Thankfully, I made it through the procedure. My doctors inserted a balloon pump and several stents to keep my arteries open. I spent the next week recovering in the hospital, hooked up to machines. I learned that 40% of the muscle in my heart was now dead.
When the staff finally told me it was time to go home, I was surprised by the dread that overshadowed my desire to see my children. I was terrified of having another heart attack, even though my doctor explained that what had happened to me was rare and that he thought my SCADs could be linked to the hormonal changes of pregnancy.
On the car ride home, I remember looking at the trees and sky with new eyes. Everything was so bright and vivid, and I felt lucky to see the world again. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on my kids and my recovery.
Within a week of getting home, though, I realized that my medical problems were just beginning. The SCADs set off a series of complications that landed me in the hospital twice over the next few months, nearly taking my life again. When I went home after the last surgery, I felt like I'd been hit with a baseball bat.
Even though I knew my kids needed me, and I was desperate to make up the bonding time I'd missed when Lily was born, I could barely find the energy to hold her, let alone play with Hudson. Instead, I crawled into bed and stayed there. I was too numb from depression and post-traumatic stress to take care of them.
Questions swirled in my mind and challenged my faith.Why would God almost kill me on my wedding anniversary, a few days after bringing this beautiful baby girl into the world?It wasn't until Shawn pointed out that God actually saved my life on our anniversary that I realized I had another reason to celebrate that day.
That aha moment changed my perspective and helped me get back to my life and family. I started setting small goals each day, like taking a shower or a . Little by little, as my energy and mood improved, I began to feel more like myself. I was thankful that I was able to be a mom and wife again.
Although I didn't have the stamina I used to have, I was soon thinking about returning to work. Before going on medical leave, I'd loved my job as a sales rep for a specialty gift company. Being a working mom was the best of both worlds—I loved my family but also took pride in my career selling home decor to small businesses and wanted to get back to it.
The Heart Attack You Can't Predict
While exercising and eating right can reduce the risk of a heart attack caused by coronary artery disease, spontaneous coronary artery dissections (SCADs) can strike active, healthy women ages 60 and younger, says Sharonne N. Hayes, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Although scientists are still searching for a potential genetic predisposition, they know that women who are pregnant or were recently pregnant are at greater risk. Stress and extreme physical exertion may also increase the risk.
To protect yourself, know the warning signs. "The symptoms of SCAD are the same as those of a regular heart attack, but healthy people often discount them as acid reflux or an anxiety attack," says Hayes. Here's what to watch for.
My doctors allowed me to return to work about 4 months after my last surgery. But I quickly discovered that my health couldn't withstand the demands of being a mother and working full-time. Exhausted and often short of breath because my heart couldn't pump fast enough, I felt like I was failing at both roles.
When I fainted while standing by Lily's crib in the middle of the night, I knew I had to resign. But I felt like another part of my identity was being taken away from me. My heart attack had robbed me of my health, and now it had also stolen my career.
It took me about 2 years to grieve the loss of the life I once knew. As a first step, I tried to focus on the positive. Now that I had more free time, I could make my health a priority. Medication side effects and lack of exercise had added 30 pounds to my frame, so I went back to the gym—modifying workouts because of my heart—and got back to cooking healthy meals for my family, as I used to do before my health problems began. I also talked through my emotions with a therapist, which really helped. About a year and a half after my heart attack, we moved back to the East Coast to be closer to our families.
For the next few years, I got to watch my kids grow into amazing people. Hudson is a terrific big brother, and Lily is spunky and sweet. She completes our family, and I would go through it all over again to have her in our lives.
Nevertheless, I still felt a desire to connect with other SCAD survivors who would understand what I had been through. They weren't easy to find, as SCAD is uncommon, but I finally discovered some fellow survivors in a closed Facebook group. As we started to share our stories, I no longer felt so alone. Eventually, I became involved in fund-raising for SCAD research.
Today, educating people about SCAD has become a vital part of my life's work. It's given me a new purpose while allowing me to care for my health and family. Every time my kids blow out their birthday candles, it's a victory for me—because I'm still here.
We'd love to read about your personal journey.
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