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Doctors Told Mom Her Heart Symptoms Were Just Stress. It Took Years to Learn She Had a Heart Defect

Nina Stanley
Screenshot/CBS Philadelphia

Nina Stanley had the symptoms of a heart issue, but the doctors kept pinning her health problems on stress and anxiety.

As CBS Philadelphia reports, the 46-year-old mom spent years getting misdiagnosed. Though her symptoms were consistent with heart disease, doctors kept looking for other explanations.

“Because I look fit, because I’m young, because I look healthy, nobody thought it would be in the realm of possibility that it was my heart,” Stanley said.

Instead of looking into the mom’s heart issues, doctors believed Stanley’s health problems were linked to her busy lifestyle and mental state. She told CBS:

“I actually received three prescriptions for Valium and anti-anxiety medications, and they said it’s definitely not a heart issue.”

She added that doctors told her, “You’re probably stressed out, you’re a mom and work full time, so you should probably quit your job.”

The misdiagnoses went on for years, and Stanley started looking up her own symptoms. Eventually, she learned that she had a genetic heart defect — a myocardial bridge was restricting blood flow to her heart.

Stanley underwent open-heart surgery and began the long road to recovery. She told CBS Philadelphia that it was “a very emotional journey, not knowing if I was going to be able to be a mom to my children for the rest of their lives and what would it be like without me.”

After having her heart issues dismissed as stress, Stanley wants other women to know that heart disease can strike anyone and that women are vulnerable to having those symptoms misdiagnosed.

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women. In fact, it is responsible for one out of every three deaths in women and kills one woman approximately every minute. Since 1984, more women have died of heart disease than men have.

However, most women don’t see heart disease as their greatest health threat even though it is far deadlier than breast cancer. Moreover, 90 percent of women have at least one risk factor for developing heart disease.

Part of the problem is that symptoms of heart disease can vary between men and women. According to the National Institutes of Health, women are more likely to experience chest pain while resting or sleeping — or during ordinary activities like cooking — rather than during exercise. For women, stress is also more likely to bring on angina pain.

Moreover, while men tend to experience that pain in the chest and describe it as an ache, women are more likely to describe it as pressure or tightness. Women often feel angina pain in the neck and throat rather than in the chest.

Finally, women are more likely to experience some of the other signs and symptoms of heart disease and heart attack. These include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, lack of energy, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.

Because of these differences in how men and women experience and are treated for heart issues, experts say that it’s important to know your risk factors and learn when to get medical help right away. Moreover, women may have to advocate for themselves and demand the tests that will reveal a heart issue.

Stanley now realizes that if she hadn’t researched her condition and demanded answers, her story might have turned out very differently. As she told CBS Philadelphia:

“That was the most frustrating part of my journey, was not being heard or taken seriously. If I didn’t advocate for myself, I may be dead.”

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  1. I too went through several cardiologists and was told it was stress and to change careers even. In the end I kept pursuing knowing I wasn’t crazy and a woman doctor in my Sinai knew something was wrong but tests kept coming back negative so she referred me to dr samin sharmabif mt Sinai Abe he found I had a myocardial bridge as well. I owe my life to both dr McCarthy and dr Sharma!!!! Because we are women the doctors dismiss it. I was 41 years d when this happened

  2. I am 53 years old and often get these angina pains in my chest. Several years ago, I went to see a cardiologist, who told me that my chest pains were just angina pains and gave me a medication that would help. I took the medication and went on my way. To this day, I still get the angina pains which feel like needles prodding in my chest. Is this something I should take seriously or dismiss as my body just getting old?… 🙂

  3. The myocardial bridges use to be considered all benign or not harmful, but we know today that they can be dangerous. You are born with it and a lot of people don’t know they even have one. When the heart squeezes or contracts during a heartbeat the bridge can tighten onto the artery of the heart and that effects the blood flow. Heart catheterization with angiography, nuclear stress test can all help diagnose. Usually it’s not treated if it’s not causing any symptoms, but they start out with beta blockers and calcium channel blockers if symptoms are happening. It’s rare, but surgery is done to remove the bridge if it’s causing severe symptoms.

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