“It’s just so important to know your body and listen to your symptoms.”
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Last fall, former All My Children star Susan Lucci underwent emergency heart surgery after she nearly experienced a “widowmaker” heart attack. Now, she’s opening up about her experience.
Lucci revealed on Today that she had three rounds of chest pain and, during the third round, she felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest—a heart attack symptom she remembered hearing about years before. “This was undeniable,” she said of the pain, which started while she was shopping.
Lucci went to the emergency room, where a doctor told her she had a huge blockage in her main artery and was close to suffering a major heart attack, known as a widowmaker. “The doctor came back and said, ‘You have a 90 percent blockage in your main artery,’” Lucci recalled. She underwent surgery and had two stents put in her heart to open the blockage.
Lucci said she’s now “doing great” but wants other women to learn from her experience. “I think the takeaway is, for women in particular, to put yourself on your to-do list because even when I felt the elephant pressing on my chest and even when (the store manager) Judy said, ‘I will drive you to the hospital,’ I was thinking, ‘But I have to go here. I have to do this.’ You know, it was the middle of the afternoon and I have no time for this and I’m sure it’ll go away,” she said.
Lucci also said that many people (especially women) also tend to worry that they’re overreacting and, as a result, downplay when they’re sick—but getting checked out could mean the difference between life and death.
“It’s just so important to know your body and listen to your symptoms,” she said. “If something feels that it’s not right, call your doctor, go to the hospital.”
What is a widowmaker heart attack, exactly?
The term describes a heart attack that is “potentially lethal” because of where it happens in the heart, says Jennifer Haythe, MD, director of cardio-obstetrics and an internist at NYPH/Columbia, and co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Your heart has three main vessels which supply your heart muscle with blood and oxygen, explains Mohamed Al-Kazaz, MD, a cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Sometimes you can have blockages in those vessels and a blockage in one particular vessel (the left anterior descending artery) can cause a widowmaker heart attack.
“This vessel supplies about 40 percent of blood and oxygen to the heart,” Dr. Al-Kazaz says. “A blockage here can cause a rhythm problem, chest pain, weakness of the heart, or even sudden cardiac death.”
What are the symptoms of a widowmaker heart attack?
Symptoms can be a little different for everyone, but people will typically have chest pressure and difficulty breathing, and may start sweating, says Sanjiv Patel, MD, cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif. Some may also feel pressure in their neck, arm, or back, and may have nausea and vomiting.
Women tend to get less typical symptoms, Dr. Patel says, and that can include experiencing less pain—and even having no pain. “Sometimes they get sharp pain or will just feel more nervous or anxious,” Dr. Patel says. Women are also more likely have symptoms like nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, and fatigue, Dr. Haythe says.
What should you do if you suspect you’re having a widowmaker heart attack?
If your symptoms persist for anywhere between five to 15 minutes or more, it’s time to call 911, Dr. Patel says. You may be tempted to drive yourself to the hospital, but don’t—you could pass out behind the wheel, he says.
And, like Lucci said, don’t try to write off your symptoms. “Never ignore any signs of a heart attack,” Dr. Haythe says.