How To Survive a Heart Attack

Andy Steiner

We’re so excited for the Jan. 14 release of Andy Steiner’s remarkable book on resiliency and mental health How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. To give you a sense of the content, we’re going to run excerpts from each chapter for each of the next eight days. Today’s is from chapter one and it’s called, “How to Survive a Heart Attack.” It follows the story of St. Paul survivor and blogger Jennifer Thorson.

How to Survive a Heart Attack

Steiner_cvrPicture me, in my doctor’s office, hooked up to an ECG machine. I’m embarrassed, a little bit tearful, even. To make matters worse, the tears make me feel embarrassed, too, so I’m a mess, really, sniffly and sheepish, trying to explain to the kind doctor, and then to her nurse, as she’s sticking probes to my chest, “I’m writing this book and I’m interviewing a youngish woman who had a heart attack. She’s really fit, around my age, a marathoner, but she had a heart attack, and her symptoms weren’t typical at all. Now I keep thinking I’m having one, too . . .” my words fade off. I’m making a ridiculous scene, and when my ECG results come back normal, as in “You are not having a heart attack, Idiot,” instead of feeling relieved, I actually feel even more embarrassed, if that’s possible. I blow my nose, quickly thank the doctor for her time, and slink out of the clinic, feeling like I am wearing a scarlet H for hypochondriac.

Later, when I meet up with Jen, The Healthy Youngish Woman Who Had A Heart Attack, and tell her my story, I steel myself for her reaction. And it’s not the cynical, scoffing response I’d feared.

“People tell me different versions of that same story all the time,” Jen says, kindly. She’s a fit, compact former gymnast, a reserved-yet-friendly woman with a neatly side-parted short, blonde haircut, intelligent eyes, and a ready smile. She lives with her husband and two sons in St. Paul. She laughs lightly and says, “My yoga teacher just told me that one day she was driving home and was so convinced that she was having a heart attack that she drove herself to the emergency room. She’d heard my story and she was feeling really aware of symptoms.” At the ER, medical staff examined Jen’s yoga instructor and assured her that her heart was just fine.

Like me, the yoga instructor was embarrassed by all the attention, but Jen says that when it comes to heart health, it’s best to push embarrassment aside. “Sure, when you’re focused on it, every little twinge might feel like you’re about to die,” Jen says, “but so many people—women especially—avoid seeking medical attention for a heart attack until it is too late.” That’s partially why the fatality rate for heart disease is so high. “If you’re concerned about your heart, you should get it checked out and not feel like a fool for doing it.”

One Sunday morning three years ago, Jen felt a bit foolish when she drove herself to the emergency room for what she figured was a severe case of reflux. The then-37-year-old mother of two had been up most of the night with what felt like the worst heartburn she’d ever experienced. For a few days before, she’d felt pain between her shoulder blades while running, but it would eventually go away. She’d also been feeling more easily fatigued, but she blamed it on not eating enough food to fuel her through her grueling workouts.

Jen was, after all, in what she thought was the best shape of her life. She’d already run one marathon and was months away from her second. She was at a healthy weight, having shed the extra pounds she’d gained while pregnant with her second child. She was working to improve her—and her family’s—diet. Her cholesterol, which had been significantly high for most of her life, seemed to be coming down incrementally. (“My highest number ever was 383 when I was in my 20s,” Jen tells me, shaking her head. “I was on a cholesterol drug briefly then, but, because it took so long for me to get pregnant, and I didn’t want to be on them when I was trying, I had been off the meds for years. At the time of my heart attack, my cholesterol was down to 230.”) The year before, Jen had stepped away from her high-stress job to spend time at home with her children. She was also fighting stress with yoga, feeling so inspired by the practice that she fantasized about becoming a yoga instructor someday.

But then there was the heart attack.

“I had been training for the marathon all summer,” Jen says. “In retrospect, I knew I was slowing down. Running was getting harder for me, but I was trying to ignore it. The week of my heart attack, I ran 17 miles, but I had to sit down after eight, because I was feeling so dizzy. I just thought I hadn’t eaten enough.”

Another sign was when she got on her bike. The super-achieving Jen was also training for a duathlon, and when she went on a training ride the day before her heart attack, she had to quit less than halfway through. “It hurt like hell,” she says now. Jen even made a point of telling her husband, Scott—her grade-school friend and high-school and college sweetheart—about the pain. “I said to him, ‘I have this weird pain in my back and it sometimes goes down my arm. I feel like you should know that.’”

That evening, Jen went out for spicy Thai food with a friend. When she got home, the pain intensified. At first, she blamed the pain on the food.

“I thought, ‘I shouldn’t have ordered it so spicy,’” Jen says. “Then I went to bed, and when I lay down it was like someone took a knife and twisted it in the middle of my back. The pain went down both shoulders and down my arms. I thought it must be heartburn. But it was worse than any heartburn I’d ever felt.”

Jen had suffered from acid reflux before, and this pain felt different. Around one in the morning, she got out of bed and began Googling “reflux and back pain.”

“I found a bunch of articles that said that combination of symptoms is normal,” Jen says. “So I took six Advil and propped myself up with pillows and tried to sleep. I just wanted the ache in my arms to go away. Eventually I fell asleep for a bit, but the pain still didn’t go away. I went back to Dr. Google and found something that said, ‘If you read something that says reflux and arm pain is normal, that’s baloney. It is a heart attack.’”

Frightened, Jen started researching heart-attack symptoms. She found a list that included upper-back and shoulder pain (check), stomach pain (check), anxiety (check). Jen had yet to experience one common heart-attack symptom on the list—breaking into a cold sweat.

“Then, just as I’m sitting at the computer, reading about that symptom,” she says, still incredulous at the memory, “I am suddenly drenched in this cold sweat.”

When Jen’s husband woke, she told him that she’d been up sick most of the night. They had planned to drive their eldest son to his first sleep-away camp that morning, but Jen said she thought she should go to the doctor instead. Scott would plan on driving both children to the camp drop-off, but if Jen was done with the doctor soon enough, she’d join them. She promised to call his cell phone with updates. Because it was a Sunday morning and her doctor’s office was closed, Jen would have to go to the emergency room.

Excerpted from How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. All rights reserved.


Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing