Jennifer Gaydosh knows all the symptoms of a heart attack. But she still ignored hers for six days.
As People reports, the 48-year-old cardiac nurse works at Rose Medical Center in Denver, Colorado. She has eight years of experience in helping people with heart problems. But when she started experiencing the classic symptoms of a heart attack, she ignored it.
“I talked myself out of it,” Gaydosh told Fox 31 News. “I thought I couldn’t possibly be having a heart attack.”
It started on a Saturday in February 2018. Gaydosh woke up with pain in her arm that wouldn’t go away. She was also nauseated and sweaty. After a few hours of discomfort, she took an aspirin and headed to the hospital.
Once in the care of her coworkers, Gaydosh started to calm down. As a healthy, athletic woman with no family history of heart problems and a low cholesterol count, she wasn’t a classic heart attack victim. She stayed overnight while they did tests, but after passing a stress test, she was released on Sunday. She told Today:
“Given that I have no risk factors, they discharged me from the hospital and said, and this is key, ‘Please come back if you have a return of symptoms.'”
Looking back, one doctor told Prevention he believes Gaydosh was intermittently having a heart attack during the entire 36 hour period.
On Wednesday, 96 hours after she first woke with pain in her arm, Gaydosh was still feeling bad and sleeping poorly due to the pain. She “doubled down” on the theory that it was a pinched nerve, took ibuprofen, and tried to power through her work day.
She told Prevention that after taking more ibuprofen and a hot bath, she tried to get some sleep, but the pain kept waking her up:
I had never experienced pain of this sort before. With a pulled muscle or a pinched nerve, there’s usually some relief with OTC painkillers — you can get into a comfortable position in bed and sleep. Not this time. Whatever the position, the burning, unsettling ache was there. Getting no help from ibuprofen, I tried acetaminophen. (Yeah, nurses play pain-pill bingo too.) I curled into a ball and slept for about three hours. When I woke up, the pain had migrated away from my left arm and shoulder and planted itself squarely under my left breast: directly over my heart.
Ignoring this clear sign of trouble, Gaydosh got up and went to work on Thursday, insisting to a worried co-worker that she was fine — despite the fact that she was lying on the floor of her office with an arm over her head.
Finally, the co-worker dragged Gaydosh to one of the echocardiogram techs for a test. When he went quiet, she knew something was wrong:
“He finally broke the silence, saying, ‘You know, I really hope we find something, because at least then you’ll have an explanation for the pain.’ I knew then that he’d found something.”
From there, things moved quickly. A doctor went over the findings with Gaydosh and sent her to the heart catheterization lab. There, she was diagnosed with spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a condition that primarily affects women. One of her main arteries had shredded and stopped blood flow.
However, there was a little good news. What had saved Gaydosh was her exercise regiment, which had strengthened her heart and caused it to create collateral blood vessels. When the blockage occurred, her heart was able to use those collateral vessels to keep her alive.
Gaydosh told Prevention that she had the classic symptoms for SCAD:
I’m the textbook case of SCAD: female, 42 to 53 years old, with few cardiac risk factors. Nobody knows why 80% to 90% of SCAD victims are women. It could be hormones, or curlicue arteries, or inflammation, or genetics. But the symptoms are clear as day: chest discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, light-headedness. (You’ll watch for those, right? Don’t explain them away like I did.) And all those symptoms were complicated by an advanced case of procrastination.
As a nurse, Gaydosh admits she should have known better. She’s seen people come into the hospital after ignoring chest pain for days. But after doing the same — for six days — she understands how easy it is to persuade yourself it’s not a heart attack:
“I see it all the time, people talk themselves out of symptoms and I always roll my eyes at them. But now I understand it’s really easy to convince yourself that you’re fine,” she told Today.
Heather Harris, Gaydosh’s friend and the director of cardiovascular services at Rose Medical Center, told Prevention that women have a tendency to ignore the warning signs of heart attack:
“Women especially don’t recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. They don’t have the classic ‘elephant sitting on your chest,’ the way men do. They just don’t feel right. Their shoulders are uncomfortable, or their backs hurt. And then there’s the sense of denial: I have too much to do to have a heart attack right now!”
Gaydosh agreed that it’s not just about knowing the symptoms. It’s also about acting in time. She acknowledges that she would have died if she had waited much longer and told Today, “I had that little spidey sense, but I was ignoring it.”
Now, Gaydosh is urging women to pay attention to their symptoms and not try to minimize them because they’re busy and don’t want the inconvenience of a major health issue.
“[D]on’t do what I did. Don’t convince yourself your symptoms are ‘nothing.’ Don’t worry about looking like a drama queen in the emergency room. Don’t worry about inconveniencing people, or about leaving work early, or about what your boyfriend, husband, boss, kids, or parents might think,” she told Prevention. “Don’t wait. Live.”