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Anxiety, nausea, shortness of breath: The unique symptoms of heart attack in women

Bookmark and Share When 39-year-old Jo Ann White decided to go to the emergency department after days of feeling nauseous and short of breath, the last thing on her mind was a heart attack. In fact, White was pretty sure she had a bad case of indigestion or possibly the flu. "I was shocked," she says. "I didn't have chest pain, numbness in my arm, or any of the symptoms I associated with a heart attack. What I remember most is feeling anxious and uncomfortable." Unique symptoms
Rehabilitation and recovery
Screenings are critical

Unique symptoms
To Reginald Blaber, MD, the Virtua cardiologist on-call when White arrived at the emergency department, these signs are all too familiar. "Women often experience atypical symptoms like indigestion, shoulder and back pain, anxiety and shortness of breath," explains Dr. Blaber. "Because they don't realize they're having a heart attack, many women delay seeking treatment, which greatly increases the risk of suffering permanent heart damage." This is true of White, whose heart was damaged due to a three-day delay before getting medical attention. Four and a half years and a remarkable recovery, later she still reflects on how close she came to losing her life. "My husband and I spent New Year's Eve 1999 in the hospital," she says. "I don't want to end up there or put my family through that again." For White, the new millennium started with a serious resolution: "My life had to change; nothing was going to keep me from seeing my daughter graduate from college or have children of her own." Emergency angioplasty and stenting cleared a 90% blockage in one of White's main arteries, but that was just the beginning. Rehabilitation and recovery
To make a full recovery, Dr. Blaber knew that his new patient would need support. As soon as she was able to exercise, White started 12 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation at Virtua's Mt. Laurel Cardiac Rehab Center. "I was afraid to exercise at first, but my heart was monitored the entire time. And I felt myself growing stronger each week," she says. Since then, White has built up to vigorous exercise four to five times each week and developed a healthy approach to nutrition featuring whole grains, soy products, vegetables, chicken and fish. She's also made taking care of herself, and her heart, a priority. She attends cooking and stress management seminars at the William G. Rohrer Center for HealthFitness, and gets an annual stress test, ultrasound and lipid profile. Screenings are critical
"It's absolutely critical that women get preventative screenings and understand their risk of heart disease," says Dr. Blaber. "It's not unusual for women who get yearly screenings for breast, cervical and ovarian cancer to overlook heart disease, even if they have a strong family history of heart problems." Robert Singer, MD, chief of cardiology at Virtua West Jersey Hospitals, agrees. "Heart disease causes six times as many deaths in women as breast cancer. In fact, more women die of heart disease than all types of cancer combined," he says. "Heart disease is the number one killer of women, but it's still largely perceived as a men's health issue." White can attest to that. "I have three brothers, and two suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol," she explains. "I worried a lot about their health, but it never occurred to me that I could be the one to have a heart attack." Awareness
To help increase awareness, Virtua Health is an active participant in Women's HeartAdvantage, a national initiative to alert women of atypical heart attack symptoms and support the recognition, diagnosis and prevention of heart disease in women. "For a long time, even healthcare providers had trouble identifying heart attacks in women. Heart disease was often misdiagnosed as mitral valve prolapse, and symptoms were attributed to lack of exercise," says Dr. Singer. "That's why it's so important we do everything we can to improve communication between physicians, patients and other healthcare providers." To schedule an appointment with a Virtua cardiologist, call 1-888-Virtua-3.