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Published February 16, 2013, 11:40 PM

‘I didn’t have any idea’: Heart attack symptoms often atypical, nonspecific in women

FARGO - Three months ago, a chipper grandmother collapsed at the downtown Holiday Lights Parade while passing out candy. To her surprise, 62-year-old Roxanne “Roxy” Burnside of Fargo was told in the Sanford emergency room that she’d had a heart attack.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO - Three months ago, a chipper grandmother collapsed at the downtown Holiday Lights Parade while passing out candy.

To her surprise, 62-year-old Roxanne “Roxy” Burnside of Fargo was told in the Sanford emergency room that she’d had a heart attack.

“I didn’t have any idea. I thought I just fainted,” she says.

Before she suffered cardiac arrest by ventricular fibrillation on Nov. 20, 2012, Roxy’s only risk factor was a family history of heart disease.

Otherwise, she was healthy.

“It’s real surreal for me that this even happened. I can’t quite get my head around it,” she says.

Dr. Heeraimangalore Manjunath, a cardiologist with Fargo’s Sanford Health, says symptoms can be atypical and nonspecific for women.

“The problem with heart attacks in women is they don’t present with typical symptoms. Women themselves don’t recognize the symptoms as symptoms coming from their heart,” he says.

Physicians might not recognize symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating or fainting as indicative of a heart problem, either.

Perhaps because of this, Manjunath says women are diagnosed and treated much later than men. It also might be why, according to the Go Red for Women campaign, more women than men have died of heart disease each year since 1984.

The only symptoms Roxy had before falling near NP Avenue and Broadway was dizziness and shortness of breath.

“Everything went white and I said, ‘Oh God, I’m going down,’ ” she says. “I had no other symptoms.”

In fact, Go Red for Women says 64 percent of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms.

Roxy doesn’t remember anything else until she woke up in the ambulance, and if weren’t for a few quick responders, she might not have woken up.

The nearby police officer and three nurses who are credited with saving her life by performing CPR and using an AED device on her have been awarded for their efforts.

“I happened to fall right before a group of Essentia nurses who came with their children,” she says.

Manjunath, her cardiologist, was impressed by their actions.

“She was fortunate,” he says.

Two stents were placed in her blocked arteries the day after her attack, and she was back at work as a receptionist at Bell State Bank a week later.

“Fortunately, her heart function was good, and it became normal once we established the (blood) flow,” Manjunath says.

Roxy’s heart attack puts her at higher risk for another, but she watches what she eats, avoids soda and doesn’t smoke.

“I have a real fondness for sweets and salt, and those are two things that you really shouldn’t have,” she says.

She’s been taking standard post-heart attack medication and exercising at Sanford Health’s Heart Center in downtown Fargo.

“I don’t feel one bit different. Maybe a little bit better,” she says, adding she no longer gets out of breath unless she really exerts herself.

Manjunath says Roxy has maintained a positive attitude during the recovery process.

She wants to use her experience to help spread the word about heart health, especially during February, which is American Heart Month.

“People need to be aware of their bodies, and I’ve told all my friends, ‘Get physicals, for heaven’s sake,’ ” she says.


Reduce risk with healthy habits

According to the Go Red for Women campaign, 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.

Although risk factors like a family history of heart disease can’t be controlled, certain behaviors and conditions like smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity can.

Dr. Heeraimangalore Manjunath, a cardiologist with Fargo’s Sanford Health, says you have to take your health into your own hands to best protect yourself against heart disease.

If you’re a smoker, quit. If you have high cholesterol, reduce it. If you’re diabetic, manage it. If you’re overweight or obese, lose weight.

“Whether you have heart disease or not, following a healthy lifestyle is important, not only for the heart, but for the rest of the body,” he says.


Heart attack signs in women

If you notice any of these signs, call 911 and get to a hospital right away.

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest; it lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back

  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach

  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness

  • As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

Source: American Heart Association


Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

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