It’s My Heart
by Dr. Richard Mabry
The line isn’t just the title of a song (and if you recognize it, you’re showing your age). It’s also very good advice. In the minds of most people, heart attacks are things that happen to others. But they can happen to anyone. And it’s a good idea to recognize the signs and symptoms, as well as being familiar with (and doing something about) predisposing factors for heart disease.
Picture this scenario, taken from my first novel, Code Blue. An obese man with a florid complexion walks into a doctor’s office and asks for something for his indigestion. Here’s what he says:
“Hey, I know it’s just heartburn. My schedule would give anybody heartburn. Out of the house in the morning with a can of Red Bull to get me as far as the Starbucks for my double espresso. Grab a burger and fries for lunch, unless I’m taking a client out. The only real meal I get in a day is dinner with the wife, assuming I get home in time. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. I made the Million Dollar Roundtable the last three years, but insurance doesn’t sell itself. I’ve got to keep pushing if I want to send Junior to college.”
The more knowledgeable among you are already shaking your heads. A hard-driving, overweight guy, probably with high blood pressure, popping antacids and ignoring the pain below his breastbone—that’s a heart attack waiting to happen. And you’re right, of course.
Most of you know that the classic symptoms of a heart attack are crushing pain beneath the breastbone, often radiating along the inner side of the left arm, into the left jaw, or even into the back beneath the shoulder blade. But heart attacks come in all shapes and sizes.
Let’s look at another scenario. For this, let me turn to a scene in one of my forthcoming books. Here, an internist receives a call from the Emergency Room where one of her patients has just come in, complaining of severe weakness, nausea and sweating. This is what the patient, a middle-aged mother of two whose husband is currently deployed in Afghanistan, says:
“I feel so silly being here, but I just kept getting weaker and weaker.”
(The doctor obtains a history of the fairly sudden onset about an hour ago of weakness, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, all of it progressive.)
“Did you do anything for this?”
“I lay down, drank some Coke, but nothing helped.”
“No, nothing. I just feel like I’m going to pass out.”
Sound like stress is getting to her? Or maybe it’s a case of the flu. But note what the internist—a woman—says when she orders an EKG. “Almost half of women who have heart attacks don’t have chest pain.” And sure enough, the cardiogram confirms that’s what’s happening. Unexplained weakness and shortness of breath are frequently the only signs of a heart attack in a woman. This is more common in the post-menopausal female, but can occur at any age.
Some risk factors for coronary disease can be controlled (like your weight and physical activity). Others (such as heredity) can’t. The most important ones are:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Being physically inactive
- Having a family history of early heart disease
- Age (55 or older for women)
What should you do if you develop the symptoms of a heart attack? Most authorities suggest you chew and swallow a baby aspirin, to help minimize clot formation in your coronary arteries. They also recommend calling 911 within 5 minutes of the development of unrelenting symptoms. This is truly a case of “better safe than sorry,” since the odds of survival are dramatically better if clot-busting and artery-opening drugs are administered within one to two hours of the onset of a heart attack.
There are two lessons to be learned from the material I’ve presented. The first, obviously, is to know the predisposing factors for heart disease and do something about them if they’re a part of your life. The second is best characterized by a phrase you’ve probably heard all your life, but one that merits repeating: If symptoms persist, see your doctor.
Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, the author of four published novels of medical suspense. His books have been finalists in competitions including ACFW’s Carol Award and Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year. His latest novel, Lethal Remedy, won a 2012 Selah Award. He currently serves as Vice-President of the American Christian Fiction Writers. His next novel, Stress Test, will be published next spring by Thomas Nelson.