The Not-So-Sudden Heart Attack
When we envision the classic heart attack, images of TV’s Fred Sanford grabbing his chest and calling for Elizabeth may come to mind. But if you have spoken with men or women who have survived a heart attack, you realize that the true picture is often very different.
Because symptoms of a heart attack can mirror those of other, more common conditions like back pain or the flu, heart attacks are often overlooked. And when you throw in the notion that “this could never happen to me,” we can see why even the professionally trained may overlook the signs.
“As a family and ER doctor, I see heart attacks present in ways we just don’t consider,” says Dr. Frank Kerrigan of Kerrigan Family Practice in Palm Desert. Kerrigan suffered a heart attack and went almost two weeks before seeking help. He had been closely watched considering his family history of heart disease. His cardio CATS and CT angiograms were clean.
“I powered through my heart attack and was completely unaware that I had it,” says Kerrigan. He had no chest pain. “In my case, it presented as a bad case of the flu. I felt weak with shortness of breath.” It was the first time in his 30-year career he left the office early. Looking back, he and his wife Deborah agree they should have taken this sign more seriously. However, he prescribed himself a z-pack and continued on a family vacation and even played golf. Finally fed up with feeling lousy, Kerrigan administered an EKG, and with results in hand, said ‘Deb, you need to get me to a hospital.’
“The symptoms are not always what you’d think.” Kerrigan adds that even with modern technology, nothing is full proof. “You have to be aware of your overall health and if any dramatic changes occur, pay attention.” Kerrigan’s heart attack probably occurred with the onset of the flu-like symptoms and by the time he sought treatment, he had done significant damage to his heart. He now wears a defibrillator.
Supporters before the incident, Dr. Kerrigan and Deborah are the new co-chairs of the Coachella Valley’s Go Red For Women. He points to the staggering statistics. The total number of women who die from the top 7 cancer diagnoses combined does not exceed the number of women who die from heart disease annually. “Signs are often dismissed by women – and sometimes even their doctors – as stress or tension.” A recent study by the American Heart Association showed that only 34% of women recognize heart disease as their leading killer. “We need to do a better job of building awareness.”
Kerrigan’s best advice is to embrace prevention now. “In life, we often oversee things,” he concludes with an emotional tone. “It’s not until something like this happens that you really hear the words to songs like Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying. Embrace every day and let those you love know it.”