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Don’t Ignore The Signs

Kelsey Samuels, ksamuels@starlocalmedia.com - Feb 8, 2019 - Plano Star Courier

Tricia Fox takes a moment to reflect on one week post heart attack.

Kelsey Samuels/Staff Photo

The sharp, distinct pain in her back had become familiar after seven years of degenerative arthritis. She’d medicate them as she could with painkillers twice a day. It was hard, but it was manageable.

On Jan. 29, Tricia Fox of Richardson felt the familiar sting of her back pains, but this time, it had a friend. For Fox, an enemy. A striking pain that crept from her back to her shoulders, slinking up her neck until it settled as a debilitating, painful pressure in her jaw.

“My head was like it was about to burst, and my jaws were just aching – even my arm,” she said. “I thought I was having horrible migraines.”

It never occurred to her that she might be in the early stages of a heart attack.

Dr. Gautam Reddy, medical director of interventional cardiology for Medical City Plano, said women experience heart attacks very differently than men. Where men describe “an-elephant-sitting-on-your-chest kind of pain,” Reddy said, women’s heart attacks often manifest as back pain, stomach pain, shoulder pain, numbness in the arms or migraines. Because these symptoms don’t mirror the male-centered image of heart attacks, Reddy said many women will chalk it up to the flu, stress or acid reflux.

Often as caretakers in the home, many women tend to ignore these early signs of heart attack to take a care of their children or their partners or their work, Reddy said. In Fox’s case, she was selling a house and buying a house, so she thought her pain was linked to her back or the stress of the move or a migraine – anything but a heart attack. But at some point, the pain was too much to ignore.

Dr. Gautam Reddy of Medical City Plano stands with Tricia Fox in the Cath lab, where Reddy helped save her life.

Kelsey Samuels/Staff Photo

“I tell my patients, even if it’s atypical, as long as there’s a pattern to it – if it’s happening again and again, more so with exertion, that's when you should not ignore those symptoms,” Reddy said.

For Fox, her continuous pain concerned her, so she visited her primary care physician Dr. Brandy Dalby in Richardson who gave her an electrocardiogram (EKG) and an echocardiogram. But after the test, everything came back normal. The next day, she still felt the cyclical pain – spasms every 15 minutes – so she went back to Dalby, who gave her another EKG. And for the second time, all results came back normal.

According to Reddy, EKGs are helpful if a patient is having a heart attack, but it’s not good at detecting blockages or predicting heart attacks.

“You can have 90-95 percent blockage and still have a normal EKG,” Reddy said.

Dalby referred Fox to Dr. Joel Roffman of the Heart Place in Plano, who after a third EKG, finally discovered abnormalities in her heart. Once a stress test confirmed his diagnosis, Roffman scheduled her for an emergency session at Medical City Plano, assuring her she’d be in good hands.

Fox arrived at the hospital with her sister Doris Marvin. After settling in a room, “all of a sudden, 15 people come in, just like on Grey’s Anatomy,” she said.

There was a lot of commotion with doctors hustling to draw her blood, telling her to undress so they could prep her for surgery. She worried the doctors were overdoing it, she said, until Reddy finally cut through the commotion and said, “You’re having a heart attack.”

“His voice was so calming. I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “I got in there, and he told me every step of the way, ‘Are you okay?’”

Once in the catheterization laboratory (CATH lab) Reddy went through Fox’s groin to place a thin stint into her heart. There was a blockage in one of the arteries, so he cleared it out and added mesh to a thin piece of artery. Because the doctors caught the blockage in time, Fox suffered no loss to heart muscle.

The day after her surgery, she was able to go home and recover in peace. A full week after the heart attack, she’s taking it easy, but she’s up and walking. She can wash dishes if she wants, but she lets her husband take care of that for her.

Heart disease continues to be the No. 1 killer of women, Reddy said. Since heart attack symptoms can resemble other dismissible pain, heart attacks go unnoticed and unaddressed until it’s too late. In Fox’s case, she was experiencing symptoms that were gradually building up until it gave way into a full blown heart attack. And the only reason Fox is alive today is because she listened to her body and didn’t ignore the signs.