The Risk the Doctor Missed
Gina Jones seemed at very low risk for heart disease: She was in her late 30s, with cholesterol and blood pressure in the normal range. She walked, jogged, and jumped rope regularly, and wasn’t overweight or diabetic. As far as Jones knew, there was no history of heart disease in her family. Given that profile, she felt free to eat more or less as she pleased. "The truth is, I ate just about anything," she says.
Although her heart seemed problem-free, Jones had other health concerns. Her energy was in the dumps, her stomach constantly bothered her, and she often felt dizzy. Sometimes she had trouble breathing. "Shortness of breath, weakness, and fatigue are common symptoms of a heart attack in women," says Teresa Caulin-Glaser, MD, coauthor of The Woman’s Heart: An Owner’s Guide. "But those are vague, general complaints, which is one reason heart attacks are often missed in women." Jones’s family doctor performed all sorts of tests, but none of them addressed her heart. Jones’s physician was like many other primary care doctors, who often don’t consider that the heart may be a problem and who are unaware that cardiac tests, many of which were designed based on research conducted on men, are often less accurate for women because of anatomical differences, such as body size and women’s fluctuating hormones.
Desperate to see improvement, Jones decided that stress was the cause of her symptoms, and she resigned from her job at a pharmaceutical company. But over the next few years, she felt worse. Then, while grocery shopping one morning in 2001, she heard what she calls a whizzing sound in her chest. She went home, took a nap and woke up feeling as if "a rope was ripping my heart out." With no relief after nine hours and no idea what was going on, Jones drove to the hospital, keeping one hand on her chest all the way.
In the ER, doctors told her she was having a heart attack. Later she found out that the whizzing she had heard earlier was the sound of blood trying to force its way through her heart.
An angioplasty (a procedure in which a balloon is threaded into an artery to widen it for improved blood flow) resolved the 100 percent blockage in Jones’s right coronary artery. She recovered, and her cardiologist started her on cholesterol and other medications to prevent any further progression of arterial disease. But about two years later she stopped taking the cholesterol drug — against her doctor’s orders — to try to get pregnant. "I was having trouble conceiving," she says. "My IVF doctor told me to stop because cholesterol drugs can cause birth defects."
Jones didn’t get pregnant, but once she went off her medication, that familiar rundown feeling returned. She had two more angioplasties to attempt to clear the same artery and, during the second procedure, suffered a mini stroke that caused permanent double vision. About this time, Jones got an update on her family history: Her 68-year-old father, who’d never known he had cardiac issues, died of heart disease.
Given her arterial problems, was told her best option for long-term survival was bypass surgery, which was performed the day before she turned 42. That’s when she got serious about sticking with her medications, eating a low-salt, low-fat diet, and exercising at least 30 minutes daily.
A year later, however, Jones experienced a new "rush" in her chest. She was so scared that she updated her healthcare power of attorney. But this time she got good news: A section of her heart was regenerating, which Caulin-Glaser says is not unusual. "I’ve heard many similar stories from patients," she says. "What she may have been feeling is the more vigorous contraction of the heart muscle as it heals."