Heart attack signs in women often missed

Doctors told Nancy that heartburn was causing her chest pains
Woman walking a dalmatian

While walking her dog, Marley, on the trails near her home in Kamloops, BC, Nancy Bradley started experiencing pain in her chest, arm and jaw. She felt certain it was her turn. 

She was all too familiar with the signs of heart attack. Her father, younger brother and two older sisters had all had heart attacks and angina

“My symptoms were just like my brother’s,” Nancy says. “It was really hard to breathe and my legs just didn't want to work.” 

Not wanting to take any chances, she walked home, and drove 10 minutes to Royal Inland Hospital. But this was July 2017; hospital visits had spiked in Kamloops because of the BC wildfires. When Nancy arrived she found an emergency room packed with people. 

After describing her symptoms to the triage nurse, Nancy was given two Aspirins as a precaution and took a seat in the waiting room. It would be an hour before Nancy was brought in for an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check her heart’s functioning. By the time she saw the emergency room doctor, the pain had disappeared. 

Still, she was most surprised when the physician told her she was having a bad case of heartburn. 

“I told him that I didn’t think it was heartburn. It felt like I had a 300-pound person sitting on my chest. There was something wrong with my heart.” 

But Nancy’s blood work and ECG had come back normal. The doctor offered to run a second test in six hours, but advised Nancy that it would probably be inconclusive. Having spent five hours in the hospital already, Nancy reluctantly returned home. For the next two weeks, when the pain flared up, she chewed antacids. 

Nancy Bradley

I would recommend that women be persistent. 

Nancy Bradley  Heart attack survivor

On Aug. 12, Nancy was back on the secluded trails walking Marley when the pain returned full force. 

She reached into her pocket for her cell phone to call 9-1-1 but realized that she'd forgotten her phone at home, 

“The sweat was dripping off my nose, I had pain in my jaw and left arm and breathing was extremely difficult.  I said to myself that I've got to do this. If I don't make it home then I'm going to die out on this trail with my dog all by myself.” 

Nancy struggled to get home. What was normally a five-minute walk took her 40 minutes. When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics immediately suspected a heart attack. They called ahead so a team was waiting for Nancy at the hospital. 

In the emergency room, an ultrasound revealed that her heart was permanently damaged. It wasn’t beating properly and an artery on the left side was blocked 95%. 

Nancy received a stent to open up her artery. Because the summer wildfires created a backlog of people with respiratory and heart problems, Nancy is still waiting to see a specialist and find out how serious the damage to her heart is. 

Unfortunately stories like Nancy’s are all too common. Research has shown that women are less likely than men to receive care from a cardiologist or be referred for aggressive treatment. 

Nancy’s hope is that her story can help other women recognize the signs of heart attack and advocate for themselves. 

“I would recommend that women be persistent. You know your own body; a person needs to follow their own gut feeling. Looking back, maybe I should have insisted more to the ER doctor the first time I went. I knew there was something wrong with my heart. I just knew it.”