Carol had spent Friday morning lifting weights with a personal trainer. It was her first time with a trainer, and he put her through an incredibly strenuous workout. Carol first sensed something was amiss as she left the gym.
“When I stepped on the stairway, I had no feeling in my foot,” recalls Carol. “It was numb. And I was completely exhausted.” Carol says she put mind over matter and made it home. Then came the terrible migraine, which lasted for hours. “I didn’t think it was a red flag at the time,” she says. “I’ve had migraines before.” She ignored it and got on a train to meet her husband downtown for a client dinner.
On Sunday, when her symptoms had not subsided and the numbness had traveled into her arms, Carol called her family physician, who believed her discomfort to be the result of her vigorous workout and suggested Advil. It was Monday night when she actually felt pressure begin to build in her chest. Carol knew something wasn’t right. She and her husband called 911. When the paramedics checked her vital signs, she appeared to be fine. They asked her if she still wanted to go to the hospital. Carol said yes.
In the emergency room at Lankenau Medical Center, Carol’s initial tests did not seem to indicate anything too serious. Still, the doctors opted to keep her overnight; the intermittent pain in her chest and difficulty breathing were certainly cause for concern. It was not until the following morning, when Carol underwent a second series of blood tests, that her cardiac enzyme levels were found to be “off the charts.” The next step was an echocardiogram.
“I can remember the doctor telling me," says Carol, "You’re having a heart attack right now.”
An emergency cardiac catheterization showed a tear in Carol’s left main coronary artery extending into her other heart arteries. It was then that the unbelievable occurred. Her heart stopped. Twice. She was urgently rushed into surgery.
Carol’s surgery was one of most complicated coronary bypass surgeries I’ve done, and I perform heart surgery every day,” recalls Francis Sutter, DO, Chief of Cardiac Surgery at Lankenau. “It looked like a bomb went off. There were so many tears in the inner lining of the arteries of Carol’s heart. They had completely ruptured, and we were putting these tiny arteries the size of the lead in pencils back together. It generally doesn’t work. I can still feel the fear that at any moment, Carol’s heart would stop again, and I would not be able to resuscitate her. If she had fibrillated, she probably would not have survived.”
Carol woke up in the ICU to learn that she had undergone an emergency quadruple bypass. “It was beyond comprehension,” she says. “I went from being on a paddle tennis court to being in a hospital bed hardly surviving. They gave me three days to see if I would make it. Most people do not survive artery dissections.”
“Carol’s condition was incredibly critical,” says Dr. Sutter. “My team and I were holding our breath for that entire week. This was a totally unusual case. I’ve performed thousands and thousands of bypass surgeries to treat coronary artery blockages, but I’ve never had a patient whose coronary arteries split apart from the strain of lifting weights.”
That was three years ago. Carol says it’s taken her that long to accept what happened, and to heal both physically and emotionally. “There are different stages you have to go through,” she explains. “The first year was about healing physically. I felt like I was just hanging on. Then there was the emotional part—the effect on my family. The second year was about getting my family back on track. By the third year, I was looking for meaning. Why did this happen to me? I realized I needed to get involved in building awareness for women’s heart health. That’s what this was for.”
Carol is now an integral part of the Women’s Heart Initiative at the Main Line Health Heart Center. Launched in the spring of 2009, the program’s mission is to raise women’s awareness of their risk of heart disease—the number one cause of death in women.
“This campaign is wonderful, and I’m excited to do whatever I can,” states Carol. “Women—especially in my age group—need to be more tuned in to their heart health. I was a young person—always fit, always worked out. This happens to even the most unlikely of candidates. I can help by putting a face to it.”
This past April, Carol presented at a Women and Heart Disease Seminar, inspiring the audience with her personal story of tragedy and triumph.
“I feel very blessed,” says Carol. “I was in the right place at the right time. I got wonderful care. I came to know so many of the doctors, the fabulous nurses, the rehab staff—I can’t say enough about the care I received at Lankenau.”
Carol admits that she’s had to adjust her “overall type A personality.” Says Carol, “I’ve had to force myself to be a little more reserved and relaxed, and not volunteer to be the captain of everything. I live a more balanced, less stressed life. I take life slower, and I really appreciate what I have.”
"I know he’s a regular guy,” she says of Dr. Sutter. “But to me, he’s a hero.”
Don't wait for Carol's story to happen to you. Take our free heart risk assessment for a picture of your heart health or make an appointment with a cardiologist to ensure your heart is beating at its best.