Health Team

Cary woman suffers three heart attacks before age 40

Posted October 31, 2012 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated October 31, 2012 7:20 p.m. EDT

— Even in the prime of life, a heart attack can strike.

That's especially true for women like Jennifer Campbell, who often don't experience the classic symptoms.

Campbell, 40, of Cary, suffered three heart attacks and didn't know.

The first one happened at age 26, when she felt abdominal pains and had trouble breathing.

Her doctor thought it was just indigestion.

The second heart attack happened eight years later. It presented all the classic signs, including shortness of breath and pain in her chest and arms.

But Campbell wrote it off to the effects of smoking.

"I was just too naïve to think that, at 34, you could be having a heart attack," she said.

At age 38, while seven months' pregnant, she had trouble breathing and got emergency care.

"It turns out I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy – pregnancy-induced cardiomyopathy – and I was also in congestive heart failure with a pulmonary embolism," Campbell said.

Doctors delivered her son, Nicholas, and then took her back into surgery for a triple bypass.

She had her third heart attack while on the operating table.

Looking back two years later, Campbell says she knows she missed all the warnings – and ignored all her risk factors, such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight and a family history of heart disease.

"It's all over my family," she said. "My father died in 2007, at 62, with a massive heart attack."

Since her scare two years ago, she's on heart medications. She's lost 20 pounds, exercises regularly.

She also shares her story with customers at the beauty salon where she works in Cary.

Every day is precious, she says.

"I just really appreciate life now," Campbell said. "You can live with heart disease. It can be prevented, and it's treatable."