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Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy, Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack. However, after experiencing a ‘widow maker’, she counts herself lucky.

Sharon’s heart story 

On the day of my heart attack, I smashed out one of my best sessions at the gym before heading to the petrol station on my way to my daughter’s farm. As I was refuelling, I started to get a sensation of heartburn. It got worse and worse.

I saw that Joy was on shift at the petrol station. Joy makes good coffee and as the pain wasn’t easing, a coffee seemed like a good fix.

I paid and as I was waiting for my coffee, the pain increased. I put my elbows on the coffee counter to help steady myself and thought, ‘What is happening to me?’ I started to lose any feeling in my arms and began leaning on the counter. The pain took over – it’s difficult to describe what it felt like. I started sweating and retching and felt an intense pain in my arms and chest.

I couldn’t speak but motioned with my fingers to one of the girls for help. That’s when Joy happened to glance over. She gave me one look and said, “Ambulance?” All I could do was nod in response.  

I remember a line of customers staring at me. I felt strange, as if I was not quite there and not really in my body. One man said I should be on the ground, but I remember feeling worse on the ground. Joy told me later that I had looked grey.

When the ambulance arrived, I had sweated so much they couldn’t attach the electrodes to my skin to carry out an electrocardiogram (ECG).

Even while I was in the ambulance, I kept thinking I was overreacting and that it would turn out to be heartburn. It wasn’t until I was transferred to the Mobile Intensive Care Ambulance (MICA) Ambulance that I knew I was in trouble.

Both my daughters are medical professionals – one is a doctor and one is a theatre nurse, so I knew about the role of MICA paramedics, who are often called on to treat the sickest or most injured patients.

That’s when I really started to worry. I was so anxious to let my husband and daughters know what was happening and I remember that I kept asking the paramedics to call them.

When I arrived at hospital in the emergency department, it was manic as you’d expect. I felt lost in a haze as medical staff ran around tending to patients. All of a sudden, a woman appeared at the foot of the bed.  She seemed to emerge out of nowhere and I remember asking myself if she was an angel. She said, “My name is Catherine, I’m a doctor. You’re having a big heart attack and I’m going to take you up to the ‘cath lab’ now.” Catherine told me that they had contacted my daughter, Amy. 

The next thing I knew, I was watching via a screen as they inserted a stent to prop open my blocked artery. 

As soon as the stent was locked in place, the pain I was experiencing was gone. It was instantaneous.

I was told that I had suffered a ‘widow maker’ heart attack. A doctor explained to me that a ‘widow maker’ is a heart attack caused by a blockage to the main artery that supplies blood to the front part of the heart, the left anterior descending artery, also known as the LAD. 

I learnt that because the LAD serves a big portion of the heart, it’s a particularly dangerous place to get a clot.

Despite its name (‘widow maker’), this type of heart attack strikes women too.

My daughters and husband were just as surprised as I was when they learned I’d had a heart attack. I went to the gym five times a week, was fit, didn’t smoke and I wasn’t overweight. But I had a strong family history of heart disease. My father was under the care of a cardiologist and three of my uncles had died of heart attacks.

Looking back at the weeks before my heart attack, I had been very fatigued. I put this down to starting a new job that was exciting but intense. It was easy to attribute my extreme tiredness to the new role – I had brain drain from a lot of new learning and simply thought I was overloaded. I also had a persistent toothache. The girls at work told me to visit the dentist, but I couldn’t work out which tooth was causing me pain. An expert explained to me that there’s a nerve that’s linked to both the heart and the jaw, which explains why jaw pain or even toothache can be symptoms of a heart attack.

I’d also been struggling at the gym in the weeks prior to my heart attack, but again, I just put it down to fatigue.

I know now that women often experience subtler or non-typical symptoms before a heart attack compared with men, which is why it’s important to know the full range of warning signs.

Thankfully, I recovered well. I went to cardiac rehab and found it very useful as it made me take the time I needed to recover. I was ready to go gung-ho with exercise and get straight back into it, but cardiac rehab gave me the guidance I needed to build back up to my regular routine.

My heart attack motivated my sister Jodie to get a Heart Health Check and she discovered that she had electrical issues with her heart. She’s now on medication to manage her condition, but she never would have known if she hadn’t visited her doctor. I’ve also encouraged several of my colleagues to see their GPs for Heart Health Checks.  

Sharon’s one piece of advice  

If there’s one piece of advice I can give to other women, it’s to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Listen to your body and listen to your gut-feeling because it’s usually right. Medical professionals would much rather you have a false alarm than a life-threatening emergency. Take the time to look after your own heart health – we’re not going to do our families any good if we’re dead.


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