She went a whole day not knowing she was having a heart attack. And she's not alone.
Beatriz Martinez was exercising at the gym one day when she suddenly felt unusually breathless and a little dizzy and got a pain in her stomach.
She stopped and took a minute to breathe, which made her feel a little better. But the pain was still there. Maybe she had pushed herself too hard and pulled a muscle?
"I thought it was the exercises, a muscle ache," says Beatriz. So, she decided to call it quits for the day and drove home.
She made lunch, washed her hair, and went about the whole day like everything was normal — even though the dull ache in her stomach never really went away. That evening, she and her husband even went to a party. But at that point, the pain had gotten worse, and by the time they went home, she was vomiting and the pain had spread to her chest.
They went straight to the emergency room.
At the hospital, they ran some tests — and Beatriz was told she was having a heart attack.
One of the most important arteries in her heart, the left anterior descending (LAD), was completely blocked. "That I'm alive, it's like a miracle," she says.
She had a stent put in and she was in recovery at the hospital for six days before she was able to go home again.
Beatriz's story is not uncommon.
Heart disease is actually one of the most common causes of death for women in the United States. But in some cases, it can be prevented — which is why preventive health care is so important.
"What creates problems for people are the things that they don't know and therefore can't change," says Dr. Nicholas Gettas, a family doctor who is now a medical officer at Cigna.
With health issues, such as heart disease, it is the cumulative effect over time of risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, that can cause a problem — like a heart attack. That’s why it is important to be informed about your four health numbers: blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI).
Even if you eat well and exercise, it's still worth getting checked. "You might see a person who is thin, who exercises, whose diet appears to be great ... [but] there is some genetic issue that means that their cholesterol is still high," says Gettas. In fact, he adds, he had a patient with a similar experience.
"The earlier you identify, the earlier you can moderate and modify the issue and the more likely you are to get a better long-term result," he says.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if everyone got their recommended preventive care, we could probably save 100,000 lives in America every year.
Beatriz's experience taught her a lot about the importance of keeping an eye on her health.
Even at the hospital, when everyone was rushing around to treat her, Beatriz says she couldn't help but think they were overreacting because she still didn't think it was that serious.
"I never thought that I had anything wrong with my heart," Beatriz says. She had always thought of herself as healthy: She was active, she exercised regularly, and she wasn't overweight.
She was also unaware of something very important: The symptoms of a heart attack are often very different for women than they are for men.
Most of the heart attack indicators we hear about are actually what happens when men have a heart attack — such as the left arm going numb or the obvious severe chest pain. In women, heart attack symptoms can be more subtle, as Beatriz experienced:
- The pain isn't always in the chest. It can be in the neck, jaw, upper back, or stomach region.
- Sometimes it just feels like a bad case of indigestion.
- Other times it just causes shortness of breath — which is sometimes mistaken as a panic attack — or dizziness.
- It can also cause nausea and vomiting.
This means women are more likely to ignore their pain or downplay the symptoms, causing a dangerous delay in treatment that can be deadly. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, women often show up in emergency rooms after heart damage has already occurred.
But there are some warning signs — Beatriz just didn’t know to look for them.
"Before I had the heart attack, I felt breathless a lot and had pain in my jaw, but I didn’t pay attention to that because I didn’t know that was symptoms of your heart," she says. There was also a history of heart disease in her family, she adds, "but I never thought I was going to have it in my life. I never thought it would happen to me."
Beatriz wants other women to know the risk factors for heart disease before a health incident makes them all too aware of it.
She has gotten involved with the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease and has become a WomenHeart Champion. She wants to spread awareness about heart health and the symptoms of heart disease to women across the United States. And she wants to encourage them to take control of their health before they ever get sick.
It has been almost five years since Beatriz had her heart attack, and she says she's come a long way in terms of taking control of her health.
She started on medication and a special diet immediately after the heart attack. And now, not only does she go to the gym, but she also does aerobics three times a week, and she works with a personal trainer three hours a week. With the help of her doctor, she also keeps close tabs on her four health numbers. And now that Martinez has taken control, her health has never been better.
"I went to my cardiologist [recently] and he said that now, my cholesterol numbers are excellent, my blood sugar is excellent — my numbers are excellent," she says.
Beatriz says that the one thing her heart attack taught her was that she can’t become complacent about her health. "You can die if you don't take care of yourself," she says.