It is still hard for me to believe that I have survived a near-fatal heart attack without even realising I was showing some symptoms. Since it happened, on April 27, I have learned a lot about the female heart. Women have “silent heart attacks,” and this can often prove fatal, because the last thing we find our busy executive selves doing is stopping everything to go to the doctor.
I was running around like the Energizer Bunny in the week of April 20, attending various meetings and going out with friends. Although I was still recovering from a broken shoulder and arm after a bad fall, I was managing to get from A to B and even cook and run my household with the help of wonderful carers.
On Thursday, April 23, I was sitting at a table at an NHS Away Day, where I was representing my locality as a volunteer expert patient. People at my table noticed I was perspiring a lot, but I just attributed this to the room being overheated. My back was hurting, but that was nothing new — for years, since a car accident with my father, I had recurring aches and pains in T5 and T6 vertebrae. I wondered if I ought to go to see my chiropractor.
I decided to see my GP instead and see if she would arrange for my back to be X-rayed. I rang the practice, and the receptionist asked me if I had ever had a troponin test. She explained it was a method of detecting heart problems with a blood test. The next day, I saw the locum doctor, who said she doubted the lab would test my troponin level, but she put it on the request sheet and said, “I would never live with myself if you had a heart attack and I hadn’t requested this.”
That afternoon, I went for a back X-ray and then spent the weekend keeping busy. Later, at a lunch with friends, I noticed I was perspiring a lot but thought it was because I was overdressed. On Monday, I had blood taken again and then went about my business as usual. I felt OK!
At 5 p.m., my regular GP rang and said, “Stop everything. You are having a heart attack.” I was astounded. I was in the middle of cooking, but she ordered me to go to the emergency department now. My troponin reading was 1,500, and normal is 15. I went to the hospital, and it took ages for anyone to see me, but finally, late in the evening, a cardiologist came into the cubicle to tell me the back pain could be a ruptured aorta. They sent me down for a CT scan of my aortas — I was terrified of being injected with a dye, but we went ahead, and I was fine — and the result was excellent. The aortas were intact. But the EKG was showing an abnormality.
At 2:30 a.m., I was transferred by screaming ambulance to a hospital on the other side of London. I was terrified. I was told I was having a heart attack, and was laid out on a table for an angiogram. For an hour I watched the six screens that showed various angles of my heart being probed by the catheter that had been inserted from my groin. There was no pain.
The blockage was found, and an angioplasty was performed.
It wasn’t until later that day that I realised how close I had come to dying; the artery was blocked so badly I could have lost my life in the subsequent weeks. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my troponin had risen to 2,000. Women have silent heart attacks. I had no chest pain or nausea; my lips had never turned blue nor had the flesh under my nails. My back pain had been a nuisance for years, but had my GP’s receptionist not suggested I have a troponin test, I would not be here to write this piece.
Unlike men who get chest pain, women can walk through life unaware their heart is about to stop. The British Heart Foundation suggests these are warning signs of heart disease: a swollen left ankle (I had it for months but thought it was a result of leaning on my left side when at the desktop), severe heartburn and severe pain in the jaw (again, I had this in the days leading up to the heart attack but just thought it was gum disease).
Most of all, if you feel unusually weary, ask for a troponin test. It can save your life. My final word: Being heart-vigilant is as important as that mammogram.