Karen Narraway was running on a treadmill in a cardiologist’s office. The 52-year-old registered nurse was doing a stress test to help determine why her heart would sometimes race, especially when she was lying in bed.
As sensors measured Karen’s blood pressure and heart rhythm, the technician suddenly told her to stop running. Her heart rate was getting too high, and she was gasping for breath.
After the cardiologist reviewed the test results, she told Karen her heart appeared strong and healthy. The fast heart rate was likely due to anxiety.
Increasing chest pain
That was 2015. Karen’s family doctor had referred her to the cardiologist and other specialists to check out a range of symptoms she was experiencing, including the racing heart as well as pain in her left arm. Their answers included menopause, arthritis and carpal tunnel as well as anxiety – but no heart disease.
Over the next 18 months, Karen took the medication prescribed for anxiety. She tried to keep active and watch what she ate – thinking that indigestion could be part of what was making her feel unwell.
She began to experience chest pain. Remembering her father’s experience with heart disease, she wondered if it could be angina. It got so bad she went to emergency. The verdict was the same: anxiety.
She wanted to believe
Karen was skeptical. “The only thing I was anxious about was the chest pain I was having.” But she wanted to believe there was nothing wrong with her heart. So she went home again, equipped with nitroglycerin to spray under her tongue in the event of more chest pain.
People at work started asking Karen if she was OK. She often looked pale and exhausted, and she was losing weight.
As her chest pain increased, Karen had another stress test. This time, the doctor sent her straight to hospital, where further testing revealed six major blockages in her arteries. Within a few days, she had quadruple bypass surgery.
Heart disease was building for years
“I was in shock,” Karen recalls. “I was angry that it had got missed to this point.” Doctors told her that the blockages had been building for a long time, but likely were not severe enough to show up on her first stress test.
Karen recovered slowly after her surgery in July 2017. She returned to her job in public health after six months, but soon cut back to part time, then eventually went on health leave.
Now 56, Karen is monitored closely by her cardiologist. Further blockages have appeared since her surgery, but she has learned that her blood vessels are too small to be treated with stents or more bypass surgery.
She manages her angina with medication. “At this point I'm just trying to keep myself strong and I'm exercising pretty much every other day right now.”
Looking back, Karen says, “I wish that I had listened to myself and listened to my body. I think that women just kind of get brushed aside because we're not showing this whole typical symptoms and stuff.”
As a health professional, Karen knew that women sometimes experience heart disease differently. But, she says, “I think it was difficult for the doctors to put the dots together.”
She believes that more research is desperately needed to understand those differences and equip health professionals to recognize heart disease in women earlier.
And research will help make more women understand their own bodies, Karen adds. “I would love to increase the awareness for women to recognize signs of whether it's a heart attack or early signs of coronary artery disease.”
Learn more about women, heart disease and stroke.