As Amy Kren finished mowing the lawn at her house in Girard, Ohio, it felt rather familiar.
The shortness of breath and tightness in her chest felt like another asthma attack. She went into the garage and placed one hand on a lawn chair to steady herself and put her other hand on her chest, trying to catch her breath. The symptoms didn’t subside, so she went inside and took a few puffs on her inhaler, hoping the medicine would help.
Her husband, Brian, suggested calling 911. She declined, insisting the symptoms would pass.
They do not. Worse, she began to feel as if a pressure gauge was squeezing her left arm. Now Amy was ready to call 911.
The paramedics did an EKG and gave her nitroglycerin and baby aspirin. As tears streamed down her cheeks, she thought, “Why would a 38-year-old woman be having a heart attack?”
At the hospital, a team of health professionals rushed to her side. This got Amy thinking about her children. She wondered, “What if I never see them again?”
Brian was unable to console her. It was 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from joining her inside the hospital.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you (and) you naturally think the worst,” Brian said. “Not being able to be there with her added to the surrealism of the whole situation.”
Heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries. Typically, blockages are caused by plaque. In Amy’s case, the blockages came from blood clots. Doctors removed them through a catheterization procedure.
Tests revealed that blood clots were linked to a genetic risk associated with birth control pills. (Estrogen-based contraceptives increase the risk of blood clots, and women with an inherited clotting disorder, family history of blood clots, surgery, obesity, and extended travel are at greater risk.)
Amy didn’t know any of this. It’s a risk that won’t affect her son, but one that she will eventually have to explain to her daughters, now 13 and 9. They will need to have blood tests to look for the gene before starting birth control.
She will also teach them about the warning signs of a heart attack, something else she wishes she had known sooner. For example, weeks before her heart attack, she experienced extreme fatigue, back pain, swollen ankles, and profuse sweating without realizing that her body was sending her a message.
“Those were signs I ignored,” she said. “If I hadn’t felt that pain so bad (in my left arm), I probably would have taken some Tylenol or ibuprofen and gone about my day.”
After leaving the hospital, Amy experienced pain in her legs and swelling. She called the cardiologist several times to make sure this was a normal part of her recovery. She also feared she was going to have another heart attack.
“I was happy to come home to see my kids, but the fear of it happening again and not having the medical staff around if something happened scared the shit out of me,” she said. “I was a nervous wreck leaving the hospital.”
Since then, Amy has been eating healthier meals, cutting back on salt and caffeine. She lost 30 pounds. His improved fitness also reduced his chances of another heart attack. Then, last March, she experienced heart palpitations and tightness in her chest.
She went to the hospital and the symptoms were stress related. Brian was grateful that she had sought immediate medical attention, just to be sure. “One of the things we’ve learned from Amy’s experience is that when you see the signs, don’t hesitate to call,” he said.
Amy chose to share her story because she wants to encourage others to understand the importance of seeking immediate medical attention.
At first, she was reluctant to do so because it meant reliving the experience. The more she tells her story, the stronger she feels. Her perseverance is fueled by responses from women who have heard her speak. Recently, a neighbor’s mother experienced heartburn and heart palpitations and went straight to the hospital.
“She told me later that I inspired her to go,” Amy said. “If I can only help one person, then what I went through is worth it.”
Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers, and advocates.
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