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Health educator experiences heart attack during seminar on prevention and wellness

Her message to all women: "Ignoring symptoms is never the best response"

thumbnail Michele Becker

My name is Michele Becker and I have heart disease. “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine” is a phrase spoken by women everywhere. While this may be an acceptable response to the common cold, downplaying symptoms of a heart attack can cause permanent damage, and even death in some cases. My primary message to women is to not ignore symptoms. Ignoring symptoms is never the best response. Here is my story…

You would think that, because my professional job involves educating companies in the design, communication and measurement of effective employee Wellness strategies, my response to my own life-threatening symptoms would have been right on, but my knowledge about health did not alter my perception of being in any real danger. I understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle, the need for preventive care and the risk associated with heart disease. However, my assessment is that even the most well-informed can miss, ignore or deny signs of personal distress. I was only 49 and healthy by all measures, and here is how I reacted to life-threatening symptoms…

While presenting Wellness & Chronic Condition Trends at a national seminar in Chicago three years ago, I experienced severe chest pain, shortness of breath, an erratic pulse, profuse sweating and indigestion. Denial and determination enabled me to responsibly finish my presentation, despite severe and increasing upper abdominal discomfort. I had convinced myself that these symptoms were caused by the previous night’s meal and a lack of sleep. My plan was to take an antacid and rest, just as soon as my presentation was over. Others in the room noticed my pain. “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine,” was my response when asked if I wanted to seek medical care.

Unwilling to take “no” for an answer, my co-presenter, Cindy, who is a registered nurse, gave me an aspirin, called 9-1-1, and insisted that I go to the emergency room to be assessed for a possible myocardial infarction (a.k.a. heart attack). While in the emergency room, I continued to downplay the situation in a telephone conversation with my husband, telling him there was “absolutely no need for him to fly from New Jersey to Chicago” because there was nothing wrong with me. However, a subsequent battery of diagnostic tests, blood work and clinical observation confirmed the preliminary diagnosis of heart attack. Six days later, I was discharged from the hospital and advised to see a cardiologist in New Jersey to develop a long-term treatment plan.

My reluctance to seek care is common, but that doesn’t make it right. Fortunately, a clinician was on hand to challenge my judgment and help facilitate a positive outcome. With minor lifestyle changes, medication and periodic visits to my cardiologist, I lead a healthy, productive life with no physical limitations.



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