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Women need to be on lookout for different symptoms of heart attack

Posted November 2
Updated November 3

When thinking of health issues and women, most people immediately ponder breast cancer and the devastating effect it can have on families.

Yet, 10 times as many women die from heart disease. In fact, more women die from heart disease than all cancers combined.

The scary part of those who suffer with heart disease and related heart issues is that the symptoms might not be things that would make a woman stop and consult with her doctor.

Women who seem perfectly healthy can be far from it, and the results can be deadly.

Caroline Ollis was one of them.

Ollis had the picture-perfect life. She was married to her husband, Kyle, for 17 years after a storybook romance. The couple adopted three kids, Macy Caroline, 10, Macon, 9, and Molly Kate, 6.

Caroline Ollis

"She was wonderful. I cannot explain how wonderful of a mother and wife she was," Kyle Ollis said. "She was an exceptional mother. She lived to be a mother. She was an incredible, loving person."

Then, one night in August, Caroline Ollis went to bed and never woke up.

"I get up the next morning, and she's lying on the floor," Kyle Ollis said.

At 46 years old, Caroline Ollis suffered a fatal heart attack.

Although she had been diagnosed with high blood pressure six months before she died and was taking medicine for it, the heart attack came as a complete shock to her family. Her husband said the medicine she was taking for high blood pressure was doing its job, and Caroline Ollis felt fine.

"She was exceptionally healthy. We walked all the time, we did everything. There were no prior warning signs of any problems," Kyle Ollis said. "She was as healthy as you and I sitting here right now."

The night before her death, Caroline Ollis had an upset stomach, headache, sore neck and shoulder, but her husband said she didn't think much of it. Kyle Ollis says they thought she might have a bug.

"She asked if I could rub her back, so we did that," Kyle Ollis said, saying his wife had no indication that she was having a heart attack. "I mean, the classic heart attack sign is shortness of breath, chest pain, tingling in your arm. But for females, it's different."

Kyle Ollis says the symptoms began to make sense while he was speaking to an emergency technician who came to his house after Caroline Ollis' heart attack.

"It's different for females. Nausea, soreness in the shoulder, neck, even up to the jaw, is what the EMT told me," Kyle Ollis said. "She just thought she had a stomach bug and she was fine."

WakeMed cardiologist Dr. Padma Hari says even physicians can miss a heart attack in women because the symptoms are so different.

"We are seeing more and more younger people, younger women, with heart disease," Hari said. "Heart disease in women is generally under-recognized, mainly because the symptoms are very atypical."

Like Caroline Ollis, many women don't have the classic crushing chest pain associated with a heart attack.

"Just being fatigued to shortness of breath, some jaw pain. Sometimes, it's just a complex of symptoms that just don't tie together," Hari said.

If any of those symptoms are unusual and they persist, Hari says women should seek immediate medical attention.

"If you have some risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes or family history, of if you're a smoker, you don't exercise regularly, those people are certainly at a higher risk," Hari said.

According to the American Heart Association, 64 percent of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms.

"Most of them, the first symptom is a cardiac arrest, and those never make it to the hospital," Hari said.

One in three women is killed by heart disease each year, and an estimated 44 million women in the U.S. are affected by cardiovascular diseases.

The American Medical Association says women can experience extreme chest pain before a cardiac episode, but they are somewhat more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and back or jaw pain. Other symptoms to watch for are dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen and extreme fatigue.

Experts say two ways women can prevent heart disease is by staying active and managing stress levels.

"Exercise, just 30 minutes a day for five days a week," Hari said. "You have to set time aside, because your health is going to be your family's health, so you need to be healthy to be taking care of your family."

Cary resident Kelley DeLeo is one of the rare survivors of a heart attack known as a widowmaker – she had a 100 percent blockage in an artery going to her heart.

"I could tell things were slipping. I was not able to breathe," DeLeo said.

DeLeo, an avid golfer with slightly elevated cholesterol levels, was 45 years old in 2009 when she suddenly became anxious, nauseous, had a pain in her back and then shortness of breath while she socialized with a friend.

"I waited a long time before I went to the hospital, that's how much I was not aware of what was happening to me," she said. "All of a sudden, there were several doctors around me. They were slipping Nitroglycerin under my tongue, and they were moving with a sense of panic and urgency. I was terrified. At that point, that was the first time I recognized that it was serious."

DeLeo said she never would have guessed she would end up in the hospital being treated for a heart attack, even with a history of heart disease in her family.

"It was unbelievable to me. I thought, 'How could this happen?' I'm healthy, or at least I thought I felt like I was healthy," she said. "There was nothing that I could recognize that would tell me this would be an issue in my life."

DeLeo says she wakes up every day feeling lucky, and she says she tries her best to "embrace the world."

"I stay very active. I love feeling healthy and strong. It's, to me, a gift each day I'm able to still be here because I know there are others who have not been so fortunate after having a heart attack," she said.

DeLeo now volunteers her time to make sure other women are aware of the risks and know what to do if they experience symptoms of heart disease or a heart attack.

"I felt a very strong calling after this event to volunteer my time, and especially my story, to other women," she said.

"I always say, 'I could be your daughter. I could be your wife. I could be your sister,'" she said. "It potentially touches all women."

Kyle Ollis says he wakes up each day wanting to make sure no other families go through the pain his has experienced.

"I want to honor her by telling other people that this is a tragedy," he said. "But in my opinion, it's an avoidable tragedy. If I had known about this, if she had known about this, you wouldn't be sitting my living room right now."

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  • Heather Bank Nov 4, 12:31 p.m.
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    The problem is that she went to WakeMed or as My hubby calls it WakeDead. They misdiagnosed his Congestive heart failure as pneumonia. Went to Rex Urgent Care and the doctor was ready to call an ambulance to transport my husband to the hospital. He had to sign a waive before she let him leave as he did not want to go by ambulance. (he had not health insurance) Thankfully we were able to get in quickly at Rex and he is doing so much better.
    I have yet to hear any good stories about the quality of care at WakeMed. I have been at their ERs twice and will never go again. Rex/UNC healthcare all the way