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How 5 Women Discovered They Had Heart Disease

'My word to all women – just get checked,' one says. And pay attention.

By Emily Gurnon

They all knew something was wrong. None believed it was a heart attack.

Five women age 50 and up who told their stories to the American Heart Association described feeling healthy and living full lives until cardiovascular disease stopped them in their tracks.

While we may picture the “average” heart attack victim as male, more women than men die every year from heart disease. The good news? Eighty percent of cardiac events can be avoided with education and lifestyle changes, the American Heart Association estimates.

The following women, national volunteers with the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign, shared their stories online to help educate and encourage others. “My word to all women – just get checked,” one survivor urges. “Listen to your body."

Christie Thompson, 52, Jefferson City, Mo. It was just one of many emails forwarded by her sister-in-law, but this one may have saved Christie Thompson’s life. Thompson got a laugh out of a short video called, “Just a Little Heart Attack,” produced by the American Heart Association. Actress Elizabeth Banks plays a frazzled working mom who doesn’t grasp that the symptoms she is experiencing are those of a heart attack.

A month after she saw the video, Thompson felt sharp pains in her chest as she got ready for bed. When the pain didn’t go away, she thought of the video. She called her daughter and then 911. She was home alone and scared of what might be happening.

(MORE: 5 Things Women Don't Know About Heart Disease)

The diagnosis: One artery that was 100 percent blocked. Surgeons inserted a stent.

Thompson was shocked. In the preceding days, she had been walking her dog, hanging holiday lights and shopping with her daughter. She also believed she had taken care of herself. “I felt like I was very proactive about my health and I always got all the recommended tests, so for me this truly came out of nowhere,” she says.

She now does cardio everyday, eats more healthfully — and shares “Just a Little Heart Attack” with everyone she knows.

Kimberly Montgomery, 53, Milwaukee, Wisc. Her habit of positive thinking may have worked against Kimberly Montgomery when she didn’t take signs of heart disease seriously, she figures. Montgomery began sweating profusely and feeling nauseous after a hot-yoga class. She hadn’t cooled down from class, she thought — or maybe it was food poisoning from that restaurant opening she’d attended the night before. She even wondered if it might be menopause.

A friend convinced her to go to urgent care. From there, staff whisked her into an ambulance to a hospital. Even when a surgeon told her he was going to do a cardiac catheterization, it didn’t sink in: Montgomery asked if he could wait for her family to get there. No, he said. You’ve just had a heart attack.

(MORE: Heart Attack Waiting to Happen: One Man's Story)

“I was no longer in denial about what was happening to me,” she says. After two stents were inserted, Montgomery “connected the dots” of her family medical history, which included heart disease in both her mother and grandfather.

She now urges other women to pay attention when something doesn’t feel right. “We tend to focus so much on how everyone around us is feeling that we forget about ourselves,” she says.

Dianne Kane-McGunigle, 58, Boston, Mass. She had spent her life “doing everything right,” Dianne Kane-McGunigle thought. She worked as a fitness instructor. She ran marathons. She ate healthfully. So she was stunned when, one morning, she collapsed with chest tightness and nausea.

She had what is known as a “widow-maker” — a heart attack that almost always kills. Doctors didn’t even recognize it right away; when she got to the hospital (her husband called 911), they thought it was a panic attack or overexertion at the gym. Sweating and vomiting, she grabbed a nurse’s hand. “I’m dying,” she pleaded. “You have to help me.”


After more tests, medical staff found the problem, and she is now in recovery. She discovered for the first time that the “widow-maker” had struck people on both sides of her family. Kane-McGunigle sees it as her mission to educate other women to know their family history, get their cholesterol and blood pressure checked and make their health a priority.

Veronica Sanchez, 55, Houston, Texas
. Nausea and dizziness signs of a heart attack? Veronica Sanchez didn’t think so. When she felt those symptoms, “I thought it was something I ate and just dismissed it,” she says. What she did not know was that she was having heart attack symptoms more common for a woman than a man. The following morning, she felt an urgency to urinate, but could not get out of bed.

(MORE: 7 Ways Denial Can Ruin Your Health)

“It was like someone was pushing down on my chest,” she says. Sanchez crawled to the bathroom, then rested on her couch, still believing she had heartburn. Her husband convinced her to go to the hospital. Her left arm “felt like it weighed 1,000 pounds,” she says.

After tests, she was diagnosed with several blockages and underwent a triple bypass.

“I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten to that point in my health,” Sanchez says. She soon learned that there was a history of the disease on both sides of her family.

She thought she had been taking pretty good care of herself, but found there was more she needed to do. “Women tend to put everything else first,” she says. “Sometimes it takes our bodies having to go through a major health event to get our attention.”

Julia Allen, 46, Charlotte, N.C. As a full-time working mom, Julia Allen always put other people first. When she began experiencing chest pains one day, she stopped at home to leave a key for her kids and make them an after-school snack. Only then did she go to the hospital.

She had begun feeling very sick shortly after arriving at work – feeling intense heartburn, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, tightening in her jaw and pain down her arm. But she thought heart disease was something that happened to other people. “I was in such denial. It was totally off my radar,” she says.

By the time Allen got to the ER and told a staff member she thought she was having a heart attack, she immediately collapsed. Doctors found that her left ventricle was 80 percent blocked.

She learned that she had a strong family history of heart disease. Other red flags had been showing up – high blood pressure readings, increasing weight and cholesterol levels – but she ignored them.

Allen is now exercising more and eating more healthfully. She also realized that stress played a role in her health, and has relaxed some of her perfectionist standards.

“If you come to my house now, I guarantee there will be crumbs on the counter and dirty laundry in the basement,” she said. “I just let it go and don’t worry about it.”

See this link for symptoms of a heart attack in women and men.

Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. Her stories include a series of articles on guardianship abuse that was funded by the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program. She previously spent 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul. Reach her through her website. Read More
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