‘A heart attack was not on my radar’ – now she works to prevent another

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Marybel Coleman was familiar with the signs of a heart attack, but even as she experienced several common symptoms over several days, she didn’t fathom that a heart attack could be the reason.

In December 2015, Coleman began experiencing a strange pressure in her chest on and off over several days. Juggling the demands of family and a busy law practice, she figured it was seasonal stress and put it out of her mind. After a holiday dinner on Dec. 12, though, she was awakened by a sharp chest pain.

“It crossed my mind, ‘I wonder if it’s a heart attack,’ but there weren’t any other symptoms, so I thought it was just heartburn and went back to sleep,” she said.

More symptoms followed over the next two days, including breaking into a cold sweat, and pain in her neck and left shoulder. Fortunately, Coleman’s annual physical happened to be scheduled that week, and it began with an EKG. Her doctor immediately sent her to the ER, where more testing confirmed she’d had a heart attack.

Catheterization revealed a 65% blockage in Coleman’s left anterior descending coronary artery, where doctors placed a stent.

Coleman was shocked to learn she had experienced a heart attack due to previously undiagnosed coronary artery disease. She had maintained a healthy diet and never smoked, and while she had been under the care of a cardiologist for an abnormally fast heartbeat, her doctor had recently released her because it was so well controlled.

“Of all the things that could happen to me health-wise, a heart attack was not on my radar,” she said. “They told me that if we had not caught this heart attack, I would have had another event that could have been fatal.”

Following her heart attack, Coleman is vigilant about any possible heart attack symptoms and saw her cardiologist several times after experiencing chest pressure, fearing she was having a second attack.

One in four heart attack survivors has a second one, so it’s important to lower your risks through lifestyle changes and taking medication, which may include a daily aspirin, as recommended by a doctor.

Aspirin is not appropriate for everyone, so be sure to talk to your doctor before you begin an aspirin regimen.

“It’s very important to talk to your doctor before making any changes, including stopping or starting medication,” said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Health. “If you are struggling to take medication as prescribed, it’s important to share that with your doctor.”

Coleman said it was a tough adjustment as she coped with side effects from her medications and developed new routines.

“I keep my medication near my toothbrush, so I never forget to take it,” she said.

Making changes in diet, such as limiting sodium, and getting enough physical activity are also important to preventing future heart attacks, Goldberg said.

Exercise, which Coleman often did in fits and starts with weight control as her goal, is now part of her regular routine, and she logs 3 to 5 miles around her neighborhood several times a week.

“I realize it isn’t something that can be here and there, it has to be part of my lifestyle,” she said.  

This year, Coleman joined the Go Red For Women 12-week program through her local American Heart Association office. The program focuses on improving nutrition and exercise habits.

Now 53, Coleman maintains close communication with her doctor and has learned to advocate for herself.

“I definitely found my voice for my own health and learned it’s OK to seek another opinion if you don’t feel you are getting answers,” she said.

Managing a demanding law practice and raising teenage twins, she’s also learning how to better control stress, which includes integrating meditation and yoga into her schedule.

Learn more about how you may be able to avoid a second heart attack.

See what Sam Prewitt has done to help avoid having a second heart attack.