Conquering the widow maker heart blockage
Patient warns women about the sneaky, sometimes silent, symptoms of heart disease in women.
Katie Mcpherson Published: 5/30/2018
Terri Tomlinson leads a healthy lifestyle. She enjoys playing with her granddaughter, doing yardwork and finishing remodeling projects on her home. The pediatric speech-language pathologist and manager at Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation on the Baptist Clay Medical Campus said she had no family history of heart disease, and none of the risk factors.
But none of that prevented her from experiencing a “widow-maker” blockage, the telling term for a critical blockage in the main artery down the front of the heart. When the artery becomes 100 percent blocked, it causes a heart attack that often is fatal.
From Party to Pains
In March 2017, Tomlinson celebrated turning 60 with a party and going out dancing with friends. By April, she was frequently experiencing what felt like indigestion. The pains were sharp, and would happen even during simple activities like changing clothes. On Easter Sunday, she went to the emergency room. She was tested for a heart attack, but everything was normal.
Because Tomlinson thought it was a digestive issue, she followed up with her primary care physician, Amanda Bagby, MD. Just in case, Dr. Bagby referred Tomlinson to Baptist Heart Specialists, knowing that the symptoms of heart disease in women can look and feel like other conditions. Here, Tomlinson met cardiologist Praveen Kanaparti, MD.
By this time, her symptoms had become episodes. “There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it,” said Tomlinson. “I could wake up relaxed, sitting at my desk or bending over to put on my shoes and it would happen. I started timing the episodes and they always lasted five to six minutes, and then would go away. It wasn’t like a shooting pain down my arms. They would feel tired and achy. It would start in my chest and radiate toward my shoulders.”
Tomlinson didn’t recognize the warning signs of heart disease, just as many women don’t. Unlike the telltale chest pain men experience, women will often feel discomfort or tightness in the shoulders, upper back or abdomen. They’ll have pain in one or both arms, and experience unusual fatigue. For some women, these symptoms occur more often when they’re resting, or even sleeping.
Narrowing Down a Diagnosis
Dr. Kanaparti ran a series of diagnostic heart tests. When they all came back normal outside of a small discrepancy on the stress test, he devised a plan.
“The next day, Dr. Kanaparti gave me nitroglycerin. He said if it worked, we’d know it was my heart,” said Tomlinson. Nitroglycerin is prescribed to stop severe chest pains by widening the blood vessels, allowing blood to flow normally despite any blockages. During her next episode of chest pain, Tomlinson placed a nitroglycerin tablet under her tongue. It ended the pain in two minutes, confirming that something was amiss with her heart.
Tomlinson went for a CT scan to find any blocked arteries. When she returned for her results, Dr. Kanaparti presented her scan and pointed to the widow maker, a 96-percent blockage in her left anterior descending artery — the main artery feeding the heart.
“It was surreal. I remember just staring at the screen not wanting to even breathe,” she said. “The personal attention and care from Dr. Kanaparti is something I will always remember. From that point, he did not leave my side. He picked up his phone and started making arrangements for emergency surgery and my transport. I went out to the lobby to call my husband and he came with me. It was about 50 minutes from the time of discovery to emergency surgery. He saved my life.”
Healing the Heart
After her stent was placed, Tomlinson had a smooth recovery and rebuilt her strength with help from Cardiac Rehabilitation at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville. While recovering, Tomlinson watched a procedure like hers on YouTube. That’s when the gravity of her situation — and her survival — truly sank in.
“It was gut-wrenching to think I could have had complete devastation when I was gardening, alone with my granddaughter or in my sleep. I praise God for having His hand on me.”
Tomlinson’s story was highlighted at the 2018 First Coast Go Red for Women Luncheon on May 18. She also walked in the event’s fashion show, escorted by Michael Mayo, president of Baptist Jacksonville.
“The reason I’m doing this is to encourage women to go get checked because this can happen to anybody,” said Tomlinson. “My message is, if something isn’t right, listen to your intuition and push for action. Without that, and the attention of the Baptist Health staff, I would not have survived. We truly have an amazing system here at Baptist when I look back at all that happened.”