PORTLAND, Aug. 25, 2022 —The Portland mother and triathlete has worked in commercial real estate for 35 years. It was the end of the workday and she grabbed her keys and headed to one last meeting.
"I got on the elevator to go down to the parking garage and all of a sudden thought, “That's kind of weird. I feel like I can't really swallow,”" she recounted. Once in her car, the strange pressure increased, becoming painful.
"I was thinking all the things that one does. It's indigestion. It's gas. It's reflux." Convinced she would feel better if she kept moving, MaryKay continued on to her meeting.
After about 45 minutes into the meeting, she began to feel significant pressure in the center of her chest, radiating up into her jaw and down her arms.
"I thought, yeah, this is probably not gas. This is probably not going to go away." That's when MaryKay quietly dismissed herself from the meeting.
Looking back on that day, she said, "I was embarrassed. I didn't want to bother anyone over something that probably wasn't a big deal. Call 911 and get help right away."
At the hospital, MaryKay earned herself a night of observation when troponins, the enzymes that indicate cardiovascular events, were discovered in her bloodwork. The next day, following a cath angiogram, the cardiologist discovered a dissected artery.
MaryKay had suffered a rare form of heart attack called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection or SCAD for short. She spent five days in cardiac ICU before being released to go home.
"I was on six or seven different medications," she said as she talked about her lengthy recovery. "I went home and started over again. I went from being a highly competitive athlete to someone who was winded after walking around the ground floor of my house. And, I constantly wondered, ‘Is it going to happen again?’”
Today, MaryKay's condition is medically managed. She has had one other incident, but no other dissections. While she's been able to resume most of the things she did before her heart attack, she is no longer a competitive athlete.
"After my heart attack, I was stunned to learn that heart disease is the number one killer in women; more than all cancers and accidents combined," MaryKay said.
She isn’t alone. Many people are surprised to learn that heart disease is a killer that strikes more women than men.
In addition to surviving a heart attack, MaryKay is also a breast cancer survivor. "Women know about breast cancer, so they know the importance of routine mammograms and regular checkups," she said.
While one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease is the cause of one out of every three deaths. That’s roughly one death every minute. Additionally, women’s heart disease symptoms can be different than men’s. That’s why the American Heart Association started the Go Red for Women Movement, a comprehensive platform designed to increase women’s heart health awareness and serve as a catalyst for change to improve the lives of women globally.
"Women need to be educated," MaryKay said, "because there's so much that can be done to reduce women's risk for cardiovascular disease. We need to make sure women, especially young women, have access to the information, to the tools and to the health care they need. It's critical, especially for young women and our historically underserved populations."
When asked what women who are survivors or are family of survivors should know, she said, "When you go through something like I did, you know life is never going to be the same. That doesn't mean it's going to be worse. It's just going to be different. Don't be afraid to reach out to the people and organizations, like the American Heart Association, that can support you. Your life is important and you are worth it."
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year, but the simple truth is that most cardiovascular diseases can still be prevented with education and healthy lifestyle changes.
The American Heart Association invites all women to make a commitment to stand together with Go Red for Women and take charge of their own heart health as well as the health of those they can’t bear to live without. Making a commitment to your health isn’t something you have to do alone either, so grab a friend or a family member and Go Red today.
“Your life is important and you are worth it,” said MaryKay. “So go out there, grab all the tools and resources available to you, and live every day to the fullest.”
Find out more at goredforwomen.org.
About the American Heart Association
The American Heart Association is a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable health in all communities. Through collaboration with numerous organizations, and powered by millions of volunteers, we fund innovative research, advocate for the public's health and share lifesaving resources. The Dallas-based organization has been a leading source of health information for nearly a century. Connect with us on heart.org, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.