The spokeswoman for the Go Red for Women campaign, Amy Heinl, experienced a very rare and often deadly form of heart disease called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, known as SCAD. She was working out on a treadmill when she felt a pull in her chest. She ended up having emergency surgery to repair a torn artery that triggered a heart attack.
Today the mother of three boys is a tireless campaigner for women's awareness of heart disease and its symptoms. She will be in Pittsburgh Saturday for the Go Red for Women annual luncheon at the Wyndham Grand, Downtown. A health fair also will be held from 9 a.m. to noon that day in the hotel's foyer that offers health screenings. For details: 412-208-3605 or www.heart.org/pittsburghpagoredluncheon.
You have said that you had no clue you were ill and there is no history of heart disease in your family. It came out of the blue.
Right and looking back now, I did feel pretty fatigued before the onset of it, but I work full time and I have kids and, you know, who is not tired? But it wasn't to the point where I thought something was wrong. I don't have any heart disease in my family. I exercise regularly. I had good cholesterol screenings so from that standpoint, for this to happen to me, it was a shock.
How old were you?
I just turned 41. It happened June 2010. I got up early to get a workout in before work and about 10 minutes into it I felt a severe pain going across my entire chest. I thought I pulled a muscle. I thought maybe I strained my back, because then I started to feel pain in my back. I broke out into a cold sweat and I began to have difficulty breathing. I still did not think it was my heart.
What you describe can all be symptoms of coronary distress.
Yes and I didn't know the symptoms of a heart attack. That is why I tell my story so women will understand or know what the symptoms are. Listen to your body. A lot of women, my friends, too, don't pay attention to heart attack signs and they think 'Oh it can never be me.'
So what were the eight weeks of cardiac rehab you underwent like?
The first day going into cardiac rehab you are just full of anxiety. You are just trying to figure out what they want you to do. The first day was taking baby steps and getting back to exercising. I had to get on a treadmill and it just involved walking. They increased the workouts but the whole time you are doing cardiac rehab they have you on heart monitors. It is so important to go through cardiac rehab after heart surgery.
How did you get over the fear that your heart would give out again or something would rip?
You know it's been almost three years now and everyday I still think about it. I have built up enough confidence to go back to a normal exercise routine. It was hard. The first year after my surgery was really the critical time. It was hard to get back to a normal routine but I have three boys so I had to re-evaluate my life as far as what activities I was involved with and what we ate. It didn't really take long. The other thing that helped me was the strong support system around me.
Was it also you just had to trust the process and your doctors?
I really did. That is something I would like to stress. Talk to your doctors if there is something or anything you feel is wrong. Especially if you don't feel right for a couple of days. It is so important to go get checked and not to cancel your appointment. I do belong to an online support group of individuals who have experienced the same thing that I did. It helps to understand how I can move forward as a SCAD survivor and to understand more about SCAD.
What about your diet? Did you make changes?
It is important for everyone to evaluate their diet and really focus on what is best for the heart. I didn't make a lot of changes because I didn't have a poor diet before this happened. Getting more fruit and vegetables and cutting them up and doing that instead of getting out the bag of chips and dip for them.
You were pretty healthy before this happened. You were a runner and very fit but do you find a lot of people have to make big changes in diet and exercise after suffering a heart attack?
A lot of people struggle with that but I think once they understand the little changes they can make to their routine and build it into their overall lifestyle it's not too difficult. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.
The symptoms of a heart attack for women are sometimes different than the classic pain in the chest or down the left arm.
Right. The symptoms in women are different from men. The severity can also be different. I teamed up with Go Red for Women, which provides a lot of great resources for people to learn and broaden their awareness of heart disease and the signs. It also gives great tips on what you can do to live a healthy lifestyle. It is at goredforwomen.org. If we understand what the signs are we can take action. Another thing is calling 911. I was very lucky that my friend was there when it happened to me. If I was by myself I don't know if I would have called 911. It is so important not to hesitate to call 911 if you think something is wrong. The first step is knowing what the signs of a heart attack are.
People often feel like they don't want to overreact and so they wait.
Exactly and I have heard that so many times as I tell my story across the country. They tell me they were too embarrassed to call. But time is of the essence with heart [and stroke] the sooner you get medical attention the better the outcome. It is that much more positive.
Are you now more prone to heart disease since you had SCAD?
There is still a lot of research that needs to be done with SCAD. This could happen to me again. It has happened to women who have experienced SCAD so it is important for me to be involved in broadening awareness. We need continued research so the millions of people dealing with heart issues can benefit from that.
Since this happened to you do you look at life differently?
Absolutely. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about my heart but at the same time I look to my future. It really does put a different perspective on life. I feel so lucky to have survived such a rare and often fatal heart condition. That is why I got involved with Go Red for Women, I needed to turn this into a positive. If sharing my story helps other women survive what I had or understand more [about heart disease], it makes me feel good.