When Dr. Sandra Nichols had a massive heart attack, she hasn’t told anyone outside her immediate family.
At the time, she worked too much, slept little and says she felt the weight of being everything to everyone.
“I was embarrassed,” she said.
Despite her medical training, she didn’t realize that the symptoms of congestion and shortness of breath meant a heart attack was imminent.
“I knew I only had so many beats per hour per day for so many years,” she said. “And I spent them with my attitude, with my effort to be beyond what my body, my family, sometimes even I expected of myself.”
Nichols is lucky to be alive. When she passed out during her heart attack, she fell on her curling iron and got a big burn. Doctors told their daughter that if she woke up, she would be lucky not to be brain dead. As a result of her cardiac arrest, she also needed a heart transplant.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women, but studies show that women wait longer to seek medical attention than men — sometimes because women are unaware that their symptoms can be different.
Signs of heart problems in women can be subtle, and stress is a major factor, said Dr. Anum Minhas, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins.
“The heart is not just an independent thing from the rest of the body,” said Minhas. “You are a whole person that goes beyond just biological functions. There are psychological functions, there is an emotional side to everything, and really nurturing all aspects of your health will make you a much healthier person.”
Most cardiac events can be prevented through proper diet, consistent sleep, knowing your family history, and trying to minimize stress.
Knowing how heart attacks can present in women can save lives. The arm pain that many men experience is not as common in women, but neck or jaw pain, shortness of breath, nausea and fatigue are common.
Nichols is now an advocate for the American Heart Association, a stark contrast to hiding her condition from her friends and co-workers when she was first diagnosed.
She says it’s important to stop and listen to your body.
“Because if not, they might find themselves on the floor, unresponsive, unconscious,” she said. “And I strongly hope no one has to go through what I went through.”