30% of women experience uncommon heart attack symptoms

Updated: Feb. 15, 2019 at 9:06 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Almost every 43 seconds, someone has a heart attack.

When you think of common heart attack symptoms, pain in the chest or down your arm come to mind. But for some women, their heart attack symptoms may be very different.

“The paramedics told me, Christi, you’re having a massive heart attack and I still didn’t believe them,” says Christi Nelson.

After all, she was just 41 years old.

“I just kept thinking of my little girl, a 10-year-old, and she could not be without her mom,” said Christi.

Christi’s symptoms were not what you typically think of for a heart attack. She had indigestion and extreme fatigue: “I was tired where I had to close my eyes. It would make me feel ill if I didn’t close my eyes.”

Doctors say 30% of women experience atypical heart attack symptoms.

"Instead of this sort of chest pressure, somebody sitting on my chest, an elephant sitting on my chest, they may have just shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, nausea, because of that, they tend to get delayed diagnosis,” explained Cleveland Clinic Cardiologist Dr. Leslie Cho.

On average, Dr. Cho said women wait six minutes longer than men to get help when they’re having a heart attack, 28 minutes for women compared to 22 for men.

“Time is muscle and so if you present later that means more heart has died, more heart muscle has died,” said Dr. Cho.

Christi described the morning of her heart attack, “I started feeling like I was having anxiety or maybe indigestion again.”

She called a friend to come over, because something just didn’t feel right.

“I went to the front door to unlock it and when she got here, she came in and I was collapsed at the front door.”

Christi’s friend called 911. The paramedics came and rushed her to the hospital in an ambulance.

“I recall hearing, we’re losing her and at that point everything changed for me and I knew I had to start fighting,” said Christi.

Christi had open heart surgery. Doctors say she is lucky to be alive.

“They did an amazing job. I’m still here, still with my daughter,” said Christi.

And now she’s using this opportunity to speak to women about heart health and to answer their questions.

"How do you know the difference when you're having a heart attack compared to something else? My response is, it doesn't matter, go to the emergency room because as women, I think we take the back seat to it and assume we're invincible, this happens to men, or if it does happen to us, it's when we're older and that's not the case at all," says Christi, adding that: "We have to advocate for ourselves. We're moms, we need to be here for our kids."

The type of heart attack Christi had is very rare. Doctors call it SCAD, or spontaneous coronary artery dissection. Only about 3,000 people worldwide have this condition. Christi’s heart attack hit in her main artery and it dissected. Most people do not survive that type of attack.

Christi has started a support group for those who’ve had cardiac arrest. They raise money for AED’s in schools, or for sports teams. They also advocate for legislation, like CPR training in schools for kids. Christi’s daughter, by the way, wants to be a cardiologist when she grows up.

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