So, I had a heart attack …

Three months ago I had a heart attack. And since the symptoms of a heart attack are different for women, and since the kind I had can strike people with no markers of heart disease, I’ve decided to tell my story. And because I love to name drop, I’ll do some of that along the way because I was with authors I love that night.

I was at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, surrounded by friends. Authors Kirby Larson, Kristen Kittscher and I had just finished a presentation on our middle grade mysteries when in a flash everything changed for me. I had full-on flu-like symptoms, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I whispered to Kirby that I didn’t feel well and needed to leave; she took one look at me and tried to intervene, asking to take me home or to urgent care. Something was off. She told me she was worried, and that I looked “ashen.” (That specific word comes into play later.) I assured her I’d be fine. My friend Sara Nickerson looked concerned and touched her chest, a movement that triggered something in my brain.

I am having a heart attack in this photo. But look at who I'm surrounded by -- friends and writers. Love these women! Kirsten Kittscher, Kiry Larson, Suzanne Selfors, Sara Nickerson, Jennifer Longo.

I am having a heart attack in this photo. But look at who I’m surrounded by — friends and writers I love. Kristen Kittscher, Kirby Larson, Suzanne Selfors, Sara Nickerson, Jennifer Longo. I love these women!

As I headed to my car, a pressure came into my chest. Weird, but not too bad. I thought about what Kirby had said, how Sara had touched her heart. I tried to stop the crazy thoughts in my head that maybe I was heading toward a heart attack. I thought about going back to the store, knowing that anyone in there would help me. My dear friend Jane (friends since college) had just left the bookstore and lives nearby. I knew I didn’t have to be alone. But I decided to drive home anyway.

A few minutes into the drive, stabbing pain in my back came and I knew precisely what it was (thank you PBS documentary on women and heart disease!). Still, because I’m a dummy, I drove all the way home, threw up and then the pain went down my left arm to my little finger.

I walked inside and asked Kevin, my husband, to take me to the ER. He asked no questions, just jumped up and grabbed his keys. I remember saying something like I might be embarrassed if it was nothing, but that I’d rather be embarrassed than dead. He just said: “We’re going.”

My heart attack was not the Hollywood kind where someone (almost always a man) grabs his chest and doubles over in pain. Every one of my symptoms was one that would stand on its own as a possible heart attack; all of my symptoms are ones that could be, and often are, dismissed by healthcare professionals, let alone the people having them. When I walked into the ER, I listed them quickly and specifically. If you are a woman (or you know one), please take note of my heart attack symptoms:

  • Stabbing back pain between my shoulder blades
  • Pain radiating down my left arm to my little finger and ring finger
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain (this was the least of my symptoms)
  • And, I said, “A friend said I looked ashen.”

All were noted, the word “ASHEN” in all caps, and I was taken in immediately. It was confirmed that I was having a heart attack, or, as I now call it, a myocardial infarction (MI). Just a couple months after a physical where I’d had a normal ECG and full blood work, with cholesterol scores so good I could have framed them. I exercise, eat reasonably well, don’t smoke, I’m not THAT old, and I was having a heart attack.Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 3.10.02 PM

The heart attack (MI) was caused by a tear in an artery wall, which is called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. SCADs occur predominantly in women who are fit and healthy, with an average age of 42. We don’t know why they happen, and I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done to prevent it from happening. The first articles I read kept referring to SCAD as a rare disease. The SCAD Research Alliance says this: “SCAD isn’t rare. It’s rare to meet a survivor.”


My friend Jane took this photo just minutes before my heart attack. I still feel like the person here, although my new normal is definitely different.

I’ve met some wonderful women through a SCAD Survivors group and I’m thankful every day for them and the research now being done at the Mayo Clinic. SCAD survivors share information on how hard the first year is, the fear of recurrence (a real fear, as it happens frequently), anxiety, making progress in cardiac rehabilitation, and finding a “new normal.”

I am incredibly grateful to my friend Kirby because her concern and her words got me to the point where I knew this was real. This was big. Ashen is an unusual color for me unless, as it turns out, my heart is not getting enough oxygen.

Heaps of thanks to my family and to all my friends, and those who, when they asked what they could do, came when I said the dog really could use a walk, or two, every day for a few weeks. Thank you.








38 thoughts on “So, I had a heart attack …

  1. I am so thankful for Kirby and her specific vocabulary. I’m so glad you went for help, I am grateful you are with us today. I understand about a new normal. Someday it will just be normal. Huzzah to life! Huzzah for sharing your story. Molly

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Linda. Hopefully, your story will save lives! I have to say, as you described the night it happened, I found myself thinking, “Linda! Don’t be stupid. Go back to the bookstore! What?! No, don’t keep driving! Pull over. Just call 911!” Like I was reading a mystery novel. No surprise there.:)

  3. I am so happy to hear you’re OK!!! Thanks for sharing. There’s nothing like learning from someone who has been through the experience! From Maron

  4. Thanks for sharing Linda, I’m so glad we can read your report and warning, I think I will remember ASHEN more clearly than anything, but also the back stabbing pain, the pinky and ring finger. Thank goodness you received help. Best wishes, hope you feel better!

  5. Linda!! Thank you for sharing. I am shocked and disturbed and thankful you are alright. Man…. sending you good healing thoughts and virtual hugs.

  6. My mother passed away at the age of 42 from a heart attack. No autopsy was performed but this literally gave me chills. I wonder if that is what happened to her. So glad you got to the ER in time!

  7. Oh my gosh Linda, I had no idea. So scary but glad you are feeling better and hey if you do need someone to walk the dog or anything else 3 months later – I’m in! I do love the story of Kirby helping to save your life – makes me love her books even more somehow.

  8. Linda, thank you for sharing your story, and so glad you are all right! This is such important information that everyone needs to know!

  9. Thank you Linda for sharing and caring about all of us enough to share this story. You are amazing. Live long and prosper

  10. Just echoing above comments — I’m glad you shared. And thank heavens you hang out with word nerds who went with an “ashen” adjective vs. “crappy” you might get at a sports bar. 🙂

  11. Thank you for sharing this. I am so glad you survived. I have my own story, about being dismissed as an irrational female by my doctor….
    If you don’t feel right, GO TO ER. And keep pushing and pushing and pushing. This experience has made me view doctors and medical treatment a whole lot differently. I’m no longer satisfied by wishy-washy answers or doctors who won’t answer my questions. Yes, better embarrassed than dead.

  12. Sharing this, Linda (Kristen tweeted it). I’m glad you’re one of the rare survivors! this is invaluable information, for sure. And it is DEfinitely better to feel embarrassed than be dead! My son had heart surgery last October (he’s only 30) because a congenital problem we didn’t know about had reared its head. I’m so grateful he didn’t ignore his symptoms!

  13. Linda, I am also a writer who had a heart attack from SCAD. It happened Oct 13, 2015 and then again Oct 16, 2015 after the SCBWI conference in Minneapolis. I’m in a support group for victims of SCAD. It’s a closed Facebook group called called SCAD Survivors. If you’re interested, check it out.
    Ann Page

  14. Thanks for sharing…though they are not all like this for women. My first one ‘just’ felt like a buzzing feeling in my chest. I thought it was anxiety and took a Xanax, which didn’t help at all. Of course I waited until the morning to call someone to take me to the ER…didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. I am lucky to be here.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I had my heart attack the day before Thanksgiving last Year. I thought I would reinforce that all people should be aware of all signs and symptoms- “its not like they show in Movies!” is something I say a lot- because my symptoms were exactly like yours – “Female” symptoms – rather than those traditionally considered “Male” symptoms. I also had problems with pain in my left-shoulder for several Years beforehand, which my Cardiologist says were likely angina attacks. I would encourage everyone to educate yourselves and be vigilant. A heart attack was something very low on my list of worries, before it happened…

  16. Wow. Thank you for writing this! I shared your post on FB (and Twitter) and lots of women have read it, responded, and are grateful to you. So glad you are okay!!!!

  17. Excellent article. The only caveat I would add (as a health care professional) is that if one is fearing a cardiac event there should not be self/friend/family transport! Call 911. They come with emergency equipment that could save a life. I have personal experience with this . A friend drove her friend to hospital and she died en route.

  18. Except for the back pain, my MI symptoms were exactly the same. And I was only 48. Because I didn’t have the stereotypical male heart attack symptoms (chest-clutching, doubled over), I was in denial and refused to go to the ER until I was basically forced to by my wife and our friend. But not before I took a shower. :b

    I wasn’t smart like you but I was lucky too. So glad you survived.

  19. Thanks so much for sharing this. I just recently learned about how women’s health is ignored by the FDA (they only test drugs on men) and after the outrage came the instinct for survival: how do women experience these things and what do I need to know to watch for? So thanks for sharing your personal experience, we need it! And I’m so glad you are okay and are living to write another day!!

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