The lessons I learned from Mom’s heart attack

A few weeks ago, I got one of those calls – the ones you dread. Mom was in the hospital, and she’d had a heart attack. I stood in the middle of a crowded city street, frozen, feeling my own heart pound.

Lucky, I thought. Lucky that my dad had rushed home to help when she called, and that they’d called the ambulance right away. Lucky that the doctors at the hospital realized she’d had a heart attack… because in some ways, it didn’t look like one.

Not everyone experiences chest pain during a heart attack. The main symptoms my mom described were nausea and a feeling like extreme heartburn. It wasn’t until after running tests at the hospital that the cardiologist confirmed that she’d actually had a heart attack.

In my First Aid and CPR training with the Red Cross, I’d learned that heart attack symptoms for women can be a lot different than for men. But it didn’t really sink in how difficult that might make it to recognize a problem, until this happened.

mom beads

It happened to be St. Patrick’s Day the next day, so I brought Mom some green beads to cheer her up. She held them tightly during a long day of uncomfortable tests and procedures. She, Dad and I talked a lot that day about how surprising the symptoms were, and how lucky we felt.

If you haven’t taken a first aid course before, I ask you to think about it. Knowing how to recognize and treat any emergency – from an injury to an allergic reaction to a stroke – could save the life of someone you love.  

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack

It’s important to recognize that the symptoms won’t be the same for every person. But here are some signs to look for:

  • Squeezing chest pain
  • Problems breathing
  • Abdominal or back pain (more common in women)
  • Cold, sweaty skin
  • Skin that is bluish or paler than normal
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Denial
  • Jaw pain

Many women, elderly people, and people with diabetes tend to experience «soft signs,» including:

  • Mild, unfocused chest discomfort that:
    • Comes and goes
    • Doesn’t feel like pain
    • Starts mild and gets continually stronger
    • Gets better with rest
    • Gets worse with activity

  • Tiredness
  • Gastric discomfort
  • Flu-like symptoms

Mom is on the mend now, and learning to let us help her, a little (it’s not easy – she’s a former nurse, used to taking care of other people, and stubbornness seems to run in the family!).

I could say that I learned how strong she is that day, but I already knew that.


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