Heart Health for Women: Why I Ended Up in the ER

As Midlife Women, we regularly adjust to the new aches and pains that come our way. Many times though, because we’re used to caring for others, we neglect our own symptoms. I recognize heart health for women is not a very sexy topic, but it’s an important one. I had a scare recently, and want to share some things with you I’ve learned since my own trip to the emergency room.

Here’s something I just learned that really surprises me:  42% of the women who have heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24% of men.

That’s serious business! Almost half of the women who have heart attacks don’t survive past a year. And–it turns out that despite all of the pink ribbons you see everywhere, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women over the age of 65.

Do I have your attention yet, Ladies?

Let’s make as our primary goal to not have a heart attack, since the statistics about them are so grim.

Before we go any further, let’s check in with the American Heart Association. Heart attack symptoms for women are slightly different from those for men, and these are things that should definitely get your attention:

  1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  4. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.
  5. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

The other week, this  is exactly what happened to me. I had several of the above symptoms, and was unsure what to do. I kept quiet about it for a bit, because I didn’t want to frighten my husband unnecessarily. My symptoms didn’t go away though, and I had to make a decision, because simply ignoring my chest pain, back pain, nausea and shortness of breath wasn’t helping.

So I told my husband, who was reading beside me on the sofa. My husband is not an alarmist, so he talked me through what I was feeling, and reviewed the symptoms I was having. He left the decision up to me, but it was clear he wanted me to get seen by someone.

It seems so obvious. I was experiencing many of the symptoms of a heart attack, so I should have gone straight to the emergency room. Why didn’t I?

There were many reasons.

I didn’t want to face that something bad might be happening. I wanted to sit in my quiet little house, with my quiet little life, and ignore the problem. Have you ever done that? It’s not the smartest thing to do in the long run, is it?

The potential expense of an emergency room visit made me feel afraid and reluctant. Yes, we have health insurance, but there are still significant expenses with any hospital visit. I simply didn’t want to incur them unless it was absolutely necessary.

I wasn’t certain that I really needed to go–what if I was over-reacting? That’s probably the woman in me talking. You know–the woman who has always been the carer, and puts the needs of others first.  It takes a lot to admit we can’t do it all, or that we might need help, doesn’t it?

So what made me go to the emergency room, after all?

Simply put–realizing how upset my husband and daughter would be if something really terrible happened, and I had never tried to stop it.

So off we went.

I grabbed a small purse with my ID, health insurance card and a credit card. We penned the dog, and drove to the ER.

Here’s what to expect if you go to the ER for chest pain.

I registered at the front desk, and was taken back almost immediately. A nurse quickly hooked me up to an EKG machine. To do so, she had to stick pads all over my chest and stomach, using a soft jelly so get the pads would adhere to my skin. Then she attached electrodes to them. She took the rest of my vital signs (such as temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels) while the EKG machine did its job. My husband was still parking the car as all of this was going on, and they led him back to me once he got to the front desk and identified himself. The nurse took several vials of my blood after he arrived, and installed an IV. Then she led us back to a hospital room. To get me there, she pushed me in a wheel chair, and my husband followed behind.

Once I was in my hospital room, they kept me attached to several machines to monitor all of my vital signs. I was feeling pretty terrible, and didn’t really want to engage with many people, to be honest. I had to, though. The emergency room doctor wanted to know all of my symptoms and how long they had been going on. He wanted to know what I had eaten that day, and what I had done as far as activities. He wanted to know my general health history, the medicines I am on–all of the standard things.

Each nurse who came in wanted to know many of the same things.

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Honestly, I really didn’t want to talk much. But I made myself, because I knew they were all trying to help, and could only do so if I gave them the tools they needed.

After a bit, an X-Ray technician came in and administered a chest X-Ray without me having to get out of my hospital bed. That was kind of awkward. I had to sit almost upright, and he slid the X-Ray tray behind my back, with the machine in front of me. He jumped behind the wall where I couldn’t see him (I guess to be shielded from the radiation) and then raced off to another patient once he’d finished with me.

At one point, they needed to refill my IV bag. At another, I was unplugged from all of the machines so I could use the restroom, but no–they didn’t need the urine sample. They gave me some pain medicine to make me feel more comfortable, and checked on me regularly. My primary job while I was there was to rest, report whatever I was feeling to the doctor and nurses, and let them try to figure out what was wrong with me.

So I did.

This was after I came home from the ER. This is probably the worst photo I’ve ever released of myself, and I’m sure you can tell how poorly I felt. And no–I have no idea why my face is orange in this picture. Lighting, maybe?…

Here’s what was most terrible about the whole experience: the noise and general confusion of the emergency room.

Granted–we should expect the emergency room to be chaotic, because people go there in times of severe distress. Regrettably, I found myself housed between two extremely difficult patients. One of them had overdosed, and wasn’t recovering. The other was very combative, and the police had to be called in order to manage him. I tried to rest between the dying woman and the man trying to assault the hospital staff, and quietly hoped that I was going to be okay.

After three hours of constant noise and confusion around me, they did one more EKG and another round of blood tests. The hospital staff was looking to see if certain enzymes were present in my blood, because they can indicate whether or not a heart attack has taken place. Neither the first blood test, taken when I was first admitted, nor the follow-up test, showed evidence of a heart attack, thank goodness.

So after a little more observation, I was discharged with instructions to follow-up with my personal physician. I saw her a couple of days after I was released from the ER. As a first step, she’s ordered a treadmill stress test for me. I’ll keep you posted on that, and see where else it might lead.

Good heart health for women is very important, but it’s easy for us to dismiss the warning signs.

It’s even easier to let ourselves go physically, because we spend a lot of time taking care of other people. Our partners, our children, our elderly parents–Midlife Women have so many people they feel responsible for. It’s so easy to make sure everyone else is doing okay, but neglect our own basic needs.

If you experience chest pain, I strongly encourage you to go get it checked out, too. Even if they don’t find the cause, as in my case, they will have a baseline to measure from going forward.

As I said in an earlier post, I’m going to work hard in 2017 to become as healthy as I possibly can. This little visit to the ER has strengthened not only my resolve, but also my sense of urgency.

I invite you to join me. I encourage you to develop your own sense of value about your personal well-being.

In the year ahead, we’ll be examining ways to keep your physical, emotional and spiritual health in balance. Right now, I challenge you to take a good look at yourself in the mirror, both literally and metaphorically, and join me on a journey of self-discovery.

Heart health for women can be a neglected part of our self-care, but it’s incredibly important.

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**Chanler Jeffers has seen many extraordinary things over her lifetime. An adventurer, survivor, overachiever and advocate of kindness in all instances, she has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), and is a member of their Circle of Champions. She has had the good fortune to live and travel all over the world, grew up as a military dependent and was a single parent for many years. She has survived cancer, and gently shaped countless people over her years on this little planet we call home. Follow along as she shares her knowledge, her experience and her love. Oh, by the way–one more thing. She’s married to a Bass playing rock star, lucky girl.


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