Hava isn’t the heart attack victim we picture. She’s a healthy eater, a regular exerciser, and only 42 years old. But six weeks after her massive heart attack, Hava tells women that learning the symptoms can save their lives.

News | 2 years ago

Female, Young, Healthy - and a Heart Attack Survivor

Heart attacks can strike regardless of gender or age, and it's vital to recognize the symptoms. 

“The hardest thing is to say it aloud,” says Hava Harrigan. “I had a heart attack at 42 years old.” Hava isn’t who we think of when we think of heart attack victims. She’s active and exercises regularly. She has an excellent diet. So when Hava took a walk one Monday morning in March and felt a pain in her chest, she dismissed it as a pulled muscle and continued life as normal.

Hava’s pain continued as she went about her daily routine for the next two days: work, exercising, and going out with friends. By Wednesday morning, the pain grew more intense and she began to vomit. She asked her husband to take her to the emergency department. After a brief checkup at Atrium Health Pineville’s Emergency Department, doctors immediately put her on a stretcher to go to the cardiac catheterization lab, and she overheard one tell her husband, “Your wife is having a massive heart attack.”

As Hava went through her routine during the previous few days, one of the main arteries to her heart was 100 percent blocked. Her heart was pumping at one-third its normal rate. After cardiologists placed two stents in her heart artery, her heart rate improved slightly, to about half of its normal rate.

“Being in the ICU was surreal,” Hava says. “I was just working out, and now I’m in the ICU after a heart attack. What’s going on?”

Recognizing Heart Attacks in Women

Hava’s heart attack didn’t resemble the stereotypical heart attack. When people think of heart attacks, they usually think of an older man who experiences a crushing pressure on his chest, who grabs his left arm and falls to the ground. This, the “Hollywood heart attack,” represents only a fraction of heart attacks, however. As Hava proves, heart attacks can happen to young, healthy women who are out exercising.

Heart attack symptoms can be less severe for women than for men – and, for that reason, they can be harder to identify. Symptoms for women include uncomfortable chest pressure, pain in the jaw or throat, shortness of breath with nausea, vomiting and lightheadedness. It’s vital for women to know these symptoms and to seek immediate medical help if they experience them, says Michelle Ross, PA, Hava’s physician assistant at Atrium Health’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.

“It’s a lot for some to say, ‘I’m having a heart attack,’” says Ross. “Some people don’t want to go to the doctor because they don’t want to feel foolish if it isn’t their heart. Some people think these symptoms are no big deal and ignore them. And some people think that a heart attack couldn’t be happening to someone who’s young and exercises.”

Ross urges women to pay close attention to their bodies, and if they experience these symptoms, to go to a doctor sooner rather than later to minimize damage to the heart. Sanger offers quick treatment: Its “door-to-balloon time” (the time it takes to open the blocked artery) averages 51 minutes, which less than the 90-minute time recommended through national clinical guidelines.

“With a team that surrounds a patient with top experts in the field of cardiology, Sanger is giving heart attack patients team-based care in the fastest time,” says John Cedarholm, MD, interventional cardiologist with Sanger.

Navigating a New Normal

Six weeks after her heart attack, Hava goes to cardiac rehabilitation three days a week. There, she learns to adapt to life after a heart attack: how to safely exercise, what to eat, and how to cope. It’s an emotional journey as much as a physical one, she says.

“It’s hard to accept the fact that this might be my new normal,” says Hava. “There is heart damage, so we have to see if the heart does heal itself.”

Ross reminds Hava that even after she returns home, Hava’s entire care team is still there to help her and to be available to answer her questions. This is important, Ross says, because the transition home comes with new rules on eating and exercising. It can be difficult for heart attack survivors and their families to adjust to the guidelines, and also to navigate the emotional part of recovery.

For now, Hava’s taking it slowly. She doesn’t walk very far, she watches what she eats, and she feels a little stronger each day. Hava’s family and friends have surrounded her with support during her recovery, and they cheer her on during her good news. Recent news offered reason for them to cheer: Hava’s heart is pumping at a higher rate, which means that her heart continues to heal and that she no longer has to wear a portable defibrillator.

“It’s not often that we get second chances,” Hava says. “We get one body and our heart is our strongest muscle. Listen to it.”

To learn more about Atrium Health’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute’s expert heart attack care, click here.