Heart Attack at Age 32
“I really thought I was dying”
Jenny Petz will tell you how lucky she is: “Seventy percent of people who have what I had are diagnosed in the morgue.”
Eight days before she collapsed in her home, the 32-year-old had delivered her second child—a boy she and her husband named Kai. Her daughter Maile was three. Jenny had always been trim and active. The last thing she expected was to have a massive heart attack.
“On New Year’s Eve-three nights before-I had a funny feeling in my throat. I figured it was anxiety and I was doing way too much.” The night of her heart attack, Jenny had just nursed her newborn and had that “funny feeling” in her throat again, except this time she was having trouble breathing and felt “fuzzy.” She stood up to go to the bathroom, thinking maybe she was having a panic attack. But then her palms started sweating and her left arm went numb. She put on her boots —on the wrong feet—and tried to tell her husband and mother to take her to the hospital. But she couldn’t talk.
She toppled to the floor and only remembers part of what followed. Her mother rushed to get her a baby aspirin and stood over her, attempting CPR. To Jenny it felt like her mother was standing on her chest. She remembers her husband calling 911. She floated in and out and wondered if she was dying or whether she was already dead. “I woke up on a stretcher and heard the EMT saying he couldn’t get a pulse. I was in an in-between state. I remember not knowing.”
In the emergency department at CHI Health Lakeside Hospital, an EKG confirmed what was happening: “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! This is a heart attack! I couldn’t believe it'” She was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab. “I thought, ‘I could still die.’I really thought I was dying.”
Jenny was having a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, SCAD for short. One of her arteries was 100 percent blocked and she says that caused another artery to “blow apart.” SCAD is a rare, sometimes fatal, traumatic condition that affects women 80 percent of the time. It may be related to female hormone levels and can occur in people who are young, in good physical shape and with no known prior history of heart-related illness. “My heart was working overtime. It was really stressed. I’m lucky I survived.”
Dennis Tierney, M.D., was the interventional cardiologist that night. He says her case was unusual—not only was she young and in good shape but he’s only seen half a dozen episodes of SCAD in his 30 years of practice. One episode involved a fellow resident years ago. The woman died, leaving behind three young children.
Dr. Tierney says Jenny was fortunate because little time was lost; her husband called 911 and the squad rushed her to the ED. “We opened her up fairly quickly. The important thing is she came in early. That’s more important than anything.” Dr. Tierney put in three stents and he says she had “no permanent impairment.”
It all seemed surreal to Jenny: she had delivered her baby son in the same hospital just two weeks earlier. “I kept thinking, ‘We’re in the wrong room.’I was in such a fog. I was so upset, I kept thinking, ‘These are my son’s first beginnings and I’m sidetracked by my own health.'” When she saw Kai, she could hold him but couldn’t lift him or carry him. He weighed nine pounds; doctors wouldn’t let her handle more than 10 pounds.
Jenny learned that her cholesterol had been dangerously high—her reading was 317, well above the recommended range. She also was surprised to learn that her grandmother had battled high cholesterol her entire life.
She started rehabilitation right away. “I was naturally thin but now I knew I had to work out for my heart.” She says she was initially angry she’d had a heart attack at such a young age. And she was discouraged: “An 80-year-old was walking on the treadmill faster than I was.”
Today Jenny’s cholesterol level reading is 156. She takes medications to keep it down, works out regularly and watches what she eats every day. “I do everything I can.” She says it hasn’t been easy, especially when “the anxiety took over” four months after the heart attack. She had a couple of panic attacks, which her cardiologist assured her was normal. “Anytime I felt funny, I’d go into overdrive. But it’s mind over matter. I tell myself, ‘I survived this. How did that happen? I have these kids!'”
In addition to taking care of herself, she’s had her daughter’s cholesterol checked and intends to track her son’s. She sponsors a team for the Heart Walk every year, attends the Heart Association’s Go Red event, is an advocate for heart research and focuses on getting her story out. “I tell anybody and everybody I had a heart attack. Life is short. Oh, my gosh, do everything you can to enjoy life!”