An ER nurse’s description of a heart attack




Did you know that women rarely have the same dramatic symptoms that men have when experiencing heart attack? For example, women typically don’t undergo the “as seen on TV” version of a cardiac arrest (you know: the sudden stabbing pain in the chest, the cold sweat, the dropping to the floor…).

Here is a story, sent in by a Scrubs reader, of one nurse’s experience with a heart attack.*

I had a completely unexpected heart attack at about 10:30 p.m. one night with NO prior exertion and NO prior emotional trauma that one would suspect might have brought it on.

I was sitting all snugly and warm on a cold evening, with my purring cat in my lap, reading an interesting story my friend had sent me, and actually thinking, “Ahhh, this is the life, all cozy and warm in my soft, cushy La-Z-Boy with my feet propped up.”

A moment later, I felt that awful sensation of indigestion, when you’ve been in a hurry and grabbed a bite of sandwich and washed it down with a dash of water, and that hurried bite seems to feel like you’ve swallowed a golf ball going down the esophagus in slow motion and it is most uncomfortable. You realize you shouldn’t have gulped it down so fast and needed to chew it more thoroughly, and this time drink a glass of water to hasten its progress down to the stomach. This was my initial sensation—the only trouble was that I hadn’t taken a bite of anything since about 5 p.m.

After that had seemed to subside, the next sensation was like little squeezing motions that seemed to be racing up my SPINE (hindsight, it was probably my aorta spasming), gaining speed as they continued racing up and under my sternum (breast bone, where one presses rhythmically when administering CPR). This fascinating process continued on into my throat and branched out into both jaws.

AHA!! NOW I stopped puzzling about what was happening—we all have read and/or heard about pain in the jaws being one of the signals of an MI happening, haven’t we? I said aloud to myself and the cat, “Dear God, I think I’m having a heart attack!”

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6 Responses to An ER nurse’s description of a heart attack

  1. OMG! I was having the feeling she had with the indigestion feeling but nothing else. Never had jaw discomfort and no other symptoms. I felt better after a while. I don’t want to call 911 every time I have indigestion though. Will be more aware when the symptoms reoccur.

  2. Susan R.N.

    What a compelling article. The evolution of an acute MI. I hope the author is doing well and I want to thank her for sharing her story and potentially saving lives.
    I am an ER nurse. Beverly commented above that she has had intermittant s/s of indigestion. First, don’t sit around waiting. Make a doctors appointment. It could be reflux. It could be angina. Have a full work-up and get some answers before this develops into something severe(possibly life threatening).
    Second, If you are having ANY symptoms of a heart attack, stroke or ANY life threatening problem then for gosh sakes call 911 ASAP!!! We would rather have someone come to the ER 10 times and be told they are ok than to NOT call the one time it is serious and they don’t survive or have debilitating after-affects.

  3. Tara

    Such good advice! I had nearly the same experience in September. I had completed an 8 hour shift and left work not feeling my best, a bad case of heartburn at worst! I stopped at a drug store and bought some liquid antacid. I then proceeded home. After trying to lay down to rest without success, I found myself becoming restless, complaining of the classic “elephant sitting on my chest” feeling. My AHA! Moment arrived. I made it to the nearest ER where I was told I was having an MI according to my elevated troponins. I soon had a cardiac catheterization with placement of 2 coronary stents. I am only 38 years old and have ZERO risk factors. Always listen to your body!

  4. Dawna

    I had worked a 8 hour shift, gone home, and at 11pm that evening I went to bed. As soon as I laid down, I could not catch my breath. I had my son call 911. Then I had a feeling of vertigo and began losing my ability to focus. The paramedic’s asked my 12 year old son, If I had used drugs!!
    I barely remember the ride, but I can remember thinking, that as soon as the ambulance made a right turn I would be at the hospital. While I was being placed into the ambulance they hooked me up to the BP machine.. Once I was in the ambulance only then did the paramedics take my symptoms serious . I looked up, I was in heart block, and I remember saying to the lady “Oh man, I am having a heart attack!” After that I dozed off and on. I remember them taking me out of the ambulance, I remember them talking to me but not about what, and I remember the guy who drove the stretcher to the cath room and my dad saying well Dr, what do you think is it a heart attack?”.. and him telling dad he was not the Dr. but they would find out what it is..

    While in the cath room, it was decided that they would complete the cath the next day, however my body had other ideas and I had to go back in.
    I was 36. No one would suspect a heart attack. I had been to my Dr with complaints of occasional veritgo, suddenly feeling I could not breath and feeling stressed. She put me on Ativan which never helped. I had those feelings for a year! (one one visit they did a EKG, later I learned the report never got to the DR and it showed abnormalities)
    In the ICU when my Dr came to talk to me, she said, I am so sorry, Never would I have thought you would have a heart attack!
    At 36, you tend not to be taken seriously when your complaint is anxiety.. that was the only symptom I had been having.. No other til that evening when I could not breathe.
    Since then.. I have had a total of 6 heart attacks, the worse required a double bypass. In every single episode, the Dr’s would try to send me home. I would insist on blood work to see if I was putting out troponins. Then when I was, things were taken seriously.
    As a patient it was scary how many times I was almost sent home. Once, I even was discharged and I went to the other hospital in town! That was the heart attack that required the bypass! As a nurse, I thank GOD that my cath Dr had faith in me. I have always asked for him to come in and see me. Each time he tells me, “I dont know how you know, but you do!”
    And I do. I encourage each of you to listen to your own bodies. I encourage you to take charge of your health and recognize that something is not “right”. Please do not wait for the real textbook symptoms! Only ONCE did I experience chest pressure, my arm aching and then my jaw hurt like you would not believe. All the others.. nothing but some vertigo!
    I also enourage you, as a nurse, to look beyond and think about your patient before you let her go home! We are their advocates.
    (as a last note: my vertigo would come suddenly, a feeling like I could not concentrate and would lose consciousness. I would have to hang on to a car, a counter, a wall. and focus to stay with it. The feeling would subside within minutes)

  5. Jackie B RN

    Very good advice. I had a heart attack 2 years ago and did not have the usual symptoms. Two odd symptoms I had was that my tongue felt numb and I felt like I was being strangled. Also when I arrived at the ED I did not have an elevated troponin level but did have an elevated ST wave. Here is a good read regarding heart disease and myths

  6. Jennifer

    I took care of a patient that had a full blown heart attack. Her only symptom was that her stomach was hurting and she couldn’t sit still.