Woman Survives ‘Widow Maker’ Heart Attack
Penny Higgins Patient Story

Woman Survives ‘Widow Maker’ Heart Attack

    Monday, January 6, 2020


Excellent local medical care is vital for survival

Heart attacks in women often look and feel much less dramatic than the stereotypical elephant-on-the-chest scenario. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, cold sweats, nausea and neck, jaw or back pain. Sometimes a heart attack is disregarded as a bad case of indigestion, as was the scenario of Penny Higgins.

Underestimating the warning signs of a heart attack

Higgins, 70, had been experiencing the stereotypical heart attack symptoms that often get ignored—chest pain, indigestion, fatigue. The discomfort faded away and then returned with a vengeance.

“I didn’t think it could be a heart attack – I didn’t feel that bad,” Higgins remembers. “It wasn’t like a heart attack in a movie scene.” Penny didn’t go directly to the hospital. Days later, the pressure tightened around her chest like rubber bands pulling, a stinging sensation shot down her arm, and her stomach pain caused vomiting.

Low survival rate for ‘widow maker’ heart attack patients

Within minutes of arriving at the emergency department, the emergency and interventional cardiology teams collaborated at full speed. “Nine or ten people gathered around and began working with extreme efficiency. They told me I was indeed having a heart attack, and they had to work fast to save my life,” Higgins said.

Higgins had a complete blockage at the beginning of her main artery down the front of the heart, or the left descending artery (LAD). As far as heart attacks go, this is often referred to as the ‘widow maker’ because of the low survival rate when patients experience a heart attack in the left descending artery. It supplies blood to the front and the bottom of the heart’s left ventricle, and to the front of the septum.

Heart muscle dies every minute during a blockage

“When it comes to heart attacks, every minute counts, and time is heart muscle,” says Abdulhay Albirini, M.D., interventional cardiologist with the Genesis Heart, Lung & Vascular Group. “Literally, every minute a blockage in an artery stops blood flow, more of the heart muscle dies. When care is delayed, significant permanent damage can result. On the other hand, if we can open the artery right away, heart muscle damage can be minimal and the majority of patients go on to live normal lives.”

Dr. Albirini and his team rushed Higgins into the Cardiac Catheterization Lab for diagnosis and treatment. Through a tiny, two millimeter catheter, Dr. Albirini maneuvered a hair-thin wire through the clot and inflated a balloon to bust the blockage. Then he deployed a small, wire mesh stent to hold the artery permanently open.

Specialized treatment and technology in Zanesville is saving lives

In acute cases like Higgins', excellent, local medical care is vital for survival. “In the old days, before Genesis had a heart program doing these procedures, patients were transferred to Columbus – 60 miles from here – which delayed treatment,” recalls Dr. Albirini. “Now, our communities have access to outstanding care close to home – it makes a big difference in outcomes.”

In fact, Genesis Hospital provides superior heart and vascular care compared to the majority of the heart centers around the nation, according to national quality indicators collected by the American College of Cardiology. “We are successful because we have the expertise, the technology, and we work so well together. The ED team, the cardiologists, the technicians and nurses – everyone knows his or her role and treats the patient promptly,” Dr. Albirini says.

Genesis cardiac rehabilitation combines exercise, education and nutritionists

Higgins participated in the Heart & Vascular Rehabilitation three times a week for three months combining exercise, education and support. “Genesis’ rehabilitation program is wonderful,” Higgins said. “We talked with pharmacists, had support groups and learned from nutritionists. I’ve built my strength by using the exercise machines too. Plus, I’m lucky because I have my husband. We’ve been married 51 years, and his support helps me get through this.”

She’ll return to water aerobics soon and continue serving West Muskingum Schools, First Christian Church and the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary. “I’m getting stronger daily. I feel like I’ve been given a chance to continue living a good life,” Higgins said. “The care at Genesis made all the difference. I know they saved my life.”

Heart attack symptoms for women can be different than men

Unlike the dramatic, chest-clutching pain in a movie scene, women often experience subtler and sometimes different symptoms for three or four weeks before a heart attack. Symptoms for women include but are not limited to:

- Jaw pain in lower left side
- Shoulder pain
- Upper back pain
- Pain in the center of the chest that spreads to the back
- Pain that spreads to either arm (usually the left arm in men)
- Unusual or extreme fatigue during normal activities
- Pain that wakes you up at night
- Shortness of breath without exertion

If you are experiencing any one of the symptoms described below that lasts for more than five minutes, SEEK EMERGENCY TREATMENT AND CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY.

Recognize other warning signs of a heart attack

Chest pain (often described as an ‘elephant sitting on the chest’) is the most common symptom of heart attack in men. These symptoms could also be signs of a heart attack:

- Chest pain (heaviness, pressure, tightness, aching, burning or squeezing)
- Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
- Pain in the arm, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw or stomach
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Sweating or “cold sweats”
- Nausea or vomiting
- Indigestion or what may feel like heartburn
- Dizziness
- Extreme weakness
- Rapid or irregular heart beats
- Light-headedness

Respond to heart attack symptoms right away

Time is muscle. Every minute a blockage in an artery stops blood flow, more of your heart muscle dies causing permanent damage to your heart. When it comes to your life or the life of someone you love, don’t delay if you have chest pain or symptoms of a heart attack. Error on the side of caution and respond immediately by calling 911 or getting to your nearest emergency department.