No one could tell Sandra Auter to stop. She’d smoked since she was 12, and her Marlboro Menthol Lights were her business.
Until she had a heart attack in November that required a helicopter ride from Carle Hoopeston Regional Health Center to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana only 50 miles away. Until knowing that not wasting a moment likely saved her life.
“The most critical part is timing. Had she delayed getting help, things could have been a whole lot different,” said interventional cardiologist Uday Kanakadandi, MD. “When a blockage cuts off a person’s blood supply to the heart, it can be really dangerous. People could suffer severe drops in blood pressure, heart failure and even death.”
During February, American Heart Month, and always, the statistics are staggering.
- Every day, about 2,200 people in the U.S. die because of cardiovascular disease, which includes strokes.
- Cardiovascular diseases kill about one woman every 80 seconds. Awareness could have prevented 80 percent of those deaths.
- Even though cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer of women, less than 20 percent think it’s the biggest health problem they face.
Fifty-four-year-old Auter, a mother of four and grandma to 10, wasn’t the least bit worried about having a heart attack. Her labs and screenings checked out fine at a recent wellness visit.
She’s certain smoking caused the blockage.
“It’s the only thing it could have been,” Auter said, recalling how the frightening series of events started.
She woke up from a nap, and her left arm felt strange. It sort of ached, but she figured it was from all the bread she’d kneaded earlier. Her pinky and the ring finger on her left hand tingled a bit.
“I never had any chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating,” said Auter, a registered nurse and home dialysis educator. “When I felt the ache move up my arm and into my neck, I knew I needed to get to the hospital.”
Auter was experiencing a STEMI, short for ST elevation myocardial infarction. “ST” references a specific part of a person’s heart rhythm.
Out of necessity, the next several steps happened quickly. An EKG showed Auter’s right coronary artery was 100 percent blocked. Dr. Kanakadandi and his team inserted a sheath and catheter through an artery in her groin and then used wires and a super-small balloon to reopen the blockage. The stent they placed maintains the restored blood flow.
“The treatment we did worked. After a few weeks of recovery, her heart regained normal function,” Dr. Kanakadandi said.
“That’s a victory.”
So is Auter’s decision to trash tobacco.
“Why go back now? It’s what I have to do,” she said. “I do what the doctor tells me. I take my medicine. Obviously I don’t smoke. And I’m less sore now that I’m used to exercising again after finishing cardiac rehab.”
The American Heart Association wants people to focus on exactly that, saying, “Even modest changes to your diet and lifestyle can improve your heart health and lower your risk by as much as 80 percent.”
The bottom line for Dr. Kanakadandi?
“Watch for the signs. Your body will tell you something is wrong. And when you recognize that, you need to get treatment quickly,” he said, adding women having a heart attack often experience pain in their left arm, back and jaw.
Other warning signs for both men and women include:
- Chest pain and pressure.
- Dizziness and/or nausea.
- Becoming worn out easily.
- Severe heartburn or indigestion.
If you have concerns about your heart health, consult reliable resources online and speak with your primary care physician or a Carle Heart and Vascular Institute cardiologist.