Prevention & Recovery

How a 37-year-old marathon mom survived a heart attack

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

How a 37-year-old marathon mom survived a heart attack

7:00 a.m. Starting the day
It was early, but for a middle school teacher and mother of young children, there's no such thing as sleeping in.

My rise-and-shine kids, Jay, then three years old, and Carolyn, just 12 months, were already eating Cheerios. Otherwise, it felt like a typical crazy holiday weekend – with the added bonus of a visit from the Easter Bunny to our home in downtown Ottawa. Plus, it was my turn to prepare the family feast.

So while my husband, Mike, chatted by webcam with his parents in Newfoundland, I grabbed my "wake-up" cup of coffee and started planning the meal.

7:33 a.m. Start of chest pains

Suddenly, I didn't feel well – and that’s an understatement. In an instant, my rib cage was being squeezed by a vise-like grip that was so intense I felt faint.

The pain in my chest was unlike anything I'd experienced before. I rushed to the living room and collapsed on the couch, holding my chest.

Mike's parents saw me on the webcam and asked if I was feeling OK. I wasn't panicking, and I didn't want anyone else to panic either, so I went up to my bedroom and called Telehealth Ontario. My responses to the nurse's questions were coming out as gasps.

After several agonizing minutes, she told me straight out: "Get to emergency immediately."

I was a fairly healthy person. At 37, I ran marathons, worked out regularly and stuck to a pretty clean diet. I honestly don't think I'd ever been to the emergency room in my life. But I didn't give it another moment's thought – the pain was excruciating.

When I came back downstairs, Mike took one look at me and knew it was bad. He quickly said goodbye to his parents and told the kids we were going to the hospital.

I remember it was very cold that morning, which meant struggling to get Jay and Carolyn into snowsuits. But I was in so much pain, I couldn't help. I hardly had time to think or feel scared.

Page 1 of 2 -- Do you know which symptoms could indicate a heart attack? Find out on page 2

7:50 a.m. Heart attack symptoms
On the way to Ottawa General Hospital, which was luckily just three kilometres from our house, it was Mike who put his finger on what might be happening.

"I think there's something wrong with your heart," he said. And that's what triggered my memory of what I'd dismissed as a minor incident the day before. I'd been out on a six- or seven-kilometre run along the Rideau Canal, when, about a kilometre from home, I felt like I couldn’t get quite enough air.

I decided to walk instead, and by the time I got home, the feeling of breathlessness was gone and I thought nothing more of it. Until now. I'd never considered the possibility I could be having a heart attack, so I wasn't scared.

Crippled with pain, and feeling a sense of tingling and numbness begin to spread, all I could think was, If we get to the hospital, they will give me something and I'll be OK.

8:00 a.m. Going to the emergency room

Mike dropped me off at the emergency room, then parked the car with the kids. I walked up to the triage nurse and said, "My name is Alex Peach. I'm 37 years old and I'm having severe chest pains. And I think I'm going to throw up."

She handed me a bucket, and within a few minutes I was hooked up to an IV. I don't recall too much else happening as I was wheeled away, except seeing Carolyn squirming in the princess dress she insisted on wearing all the time, Jay taking in everything that was going on in the ER with wide eyes and Mike wearing a worried expression on his face.

Looking back, that's when I should have realized how perilous my situation was, but I was still too distressed to think. But it's funny what you do remember. I recall thinking I had to stay lucid enough to answer the questions the doctors were asking: "Have you taken any illegal drugs? Do you have any family history of heart disease? Do you suffer from high blood pressure? On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your pain?"

No, no, no and nine, I answered. How could I be a suspected heart attack patient?

Nevertheless, they decided to send me to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. Once that call was made, the 24-hour Code STEMI (ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction) protocol went into action. It's a system that alerts the Heart Institute that a patient with a completely blocked coronary artery is coming, so they can immediately assemble a team.

Page 2 of 5 -- Alexandra describes what it was like to undergo diagnostics and surgery — all while awake on page 3

10:00 a.m. Angiogram procedure
The Heart Institute's STEMI team was standing at attention when I arrived by ambulance just 10 minutes later.

The first thing they did was an angiogram: a medical imaging procedure in which dye is injected into the bloodstream to show the flow of blood through the arteries on an X-ray.

I didn't even feel it when they inserted the catheter into an artery in my thigh – maybe it's a fairly painless procedure, or perhaps it was because I'd been given painkillers. Then the X-ray was developed.

On the screen, I could see the blood flowing to my heart – where it just stopped. There were two blockages in my left anterior descending artery. I was lying there, actually looking at my heart attack.

10:20 a.m. During the angioplasty
Once they found the blockages, they immediately performed an angioplasty, inserting two tiny mesh stents in my artery to open the obstruction and restore normal blood flow.

I was fully awake during the procedure and was able to think – and cry. The realization that my life was being given back to me was overwhelming. I could have lost everything in the three hours that had passed since those first crippling chest pains, but instead I'd been granted another chance to be a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend. It was such a blessing.

The nurse was wheeling me out of the operating room when that really hit me. She kindly reassured me the procedure was a success, then said teasingly, "Great, we're all finished and now you're crying?"

Page 3 of 5 -- Learn about a mother's life after a heart attack on page 4

Life after a heart attack
In the weeks that followed, I made a complete recovery.

My neighbours helped out by taking turns bringing over heart-healthy meals, while Mom came from Nova Scotia to take care of the kids.

I signed up for a study at the Heart Institute that monitored my progress for a year; as part of the follow-up process, I was scheduled for regular diagnostic procedures, including echocardiograms and coronary angiograms.

Apparently, in about 10 per cent of heart attack cases, doctors can't pin down a reason why the blockages formed in the first place. As it turns out, I was among that 10 per cent, but that hasn't stopped me from making some healthy changes.

I now keep a sodium chart on my fridge door as a reminder to check the salt content before I eat anything, and instead of having a sandwich for lunch when I’m teaching, I have rye crackers, avocado and a salad.

I also took up yoga for a year, and now I’m back to running half-marathons, with the full support of my cardiologist. When I'm running, it’s hard to believe that I ever had a heart attack and that I came so close to losing my life.

I think of how blessed I felt when, just five days after my heart attack, I was released from the hospital. Mike had come to pick me up, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. That's a good sign, I thought as I walked out to the car. Everything's going to be OK. And you know what? I was right.

Page 4 of 5 -- Discover the facts and myths about heart attacks on page 5
The truth about heart attacks
The claim: More women die from breast cancer than from heart attacks.
Fact: Heart disease kills seven times more Canadian women every year than breast cancer does, and it’s the number one cause of death for women over 55, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The claim: Women are at a lower risk for heart attacks than men.
Fact: Women do tend to have a lower risk – until they hit menopause, that is. As estrogen levels drop, the risk increases until it’s on par with men. Other contributing factors to heart disease include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, inactivity, excess body weight, genetics and race. (Black and Asian women have a higher risk of heart attacks.)

The claim: Undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) will protect you against a heart attack.
Fact: Recent studies have found that, for some women, HRT can actually increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and blood clots.

Be aware of the symptoms
Although the classic symptoms of a heart attack can apply to both men and women, Dr. Michael Froeschl, a cardiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, says the warning signs aren’t always identical. "Women have a greater tendency to experience less typical symptoms," he says.

Heart attack symptoms:
• Chest pain or pressure (although some women feel no chest pain at all)
• Pain in the arm, neck, jaw or back
• Sweating or cold, clammy skin
• Nausea, indigestion or vomiting
• Shortness of breath
• Unusual tiredness
• Trouble sleeping
• Anxiety

This story was originally titled "180 Minutes That Changed My Life" in the February 2012 issue.

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Prevention & Recovery

How a 37-year-old marathon mom survived a heart attack