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Heart Attack? “When in Doubt, Check It Out!”

By Nancy Johnston Hall

That slogan, which I wrote for a National Institutes of Health campaign years ago, saved at least one life that I know of. I was lucky enough to meet the man who saw it on a billboard every morning on his way to breakfast with his friends. He told me he remembered it when he started having unusual chest symptoms. He might have ignored them, but even though he was “in doubt,” he went to an emergency room right away and received life-saving treatment for a serious heart attack. That may be why I think this is the most important column I’ll ever write.

Minutes matter

The more time that passes, the more damage to the heart muscle. New treatments, such as clot-busting drugs, can stop a heart attack in its tracks. Unfortunately, nearly half of all heart attack victims don’t get help in time to reduce damage. Here are some real quotes from people we spoke to about why they didn’t act quickly. “I thought it would be intense, like it is in the movies.” “I’d be so embarrassed if it’s a false alarm.” “It’s probably just the flu.” “It can’t be me. I work out!” “Let me just lie down, and we’ll wait and see.” “Women don’t get heart attacks.”

All these reactions are understandable. Who wants to think they’re having a heart attack? But it’s so important to remember that once a heart attack begins, every minute counts. And everyone should know the symptoms, which can vary widely, and have a plan for how they would get to an emergency room the fastest way.

Some heart attacks are sudden, intense, and painful—the dramatic “movie heart attack”—when no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly with mild pain or discomfort. Often the people involved aren’t sure what’s wrong and thus wait too long before getting help. That’s why it’s important to remember, “When in doubt, check it out.”

Learn these heart attack warning signs

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve pressure, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest.

Shortness of breath. Some people find it hard to breathe. This feeling often comes with chest discomfort, but also can come before it.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: the jaw, neck, arms, shoulders, or back.

Other signs. People having a heart attack may also feel nauseated, break out in a cold sweat, or feel light-headed or faint.

Like men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely to experience some of the other common symptoms, especially shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

If you, a friend, or family member has any of these symptoms, do not delay. Act fast and call 911, or get to an emergency room right away.

Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with nearly 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Last year Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.


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