Ten years ago, Sue Chlebek’s morning started like any other day: school drop off, 3-mile walk with a friend and a trip home to let her dogs out. At first, nothing seemed out of the norm. The then-50-year-old mother of three was a bit short of breath during her walk, but she chalked it up to being extra chatty. But shortly after returning home, she began experiencing quick, sharp, stabbing pains in her chest. It was unsettling. Still, Chlebek didn’t think that what she was experiencing was a medical emergency. Minutes later, Chlebek was in the ER, fighting for her life.
Chlebek was diagnosed with a heart attack of the LAD (left anterior descending artery) – or the left main artery – which was over 95% blocked and caused her heart to go into irregular rhythms, resulting in sudden cardiac arrest.
If Chlebek hadn’t arrived at the hospital when she did, she might not be here today. “I was one block away from the hospital at a red light when I had my first moment of panic,” recalls Chlebek, who drove herself to the ER. “I had another chest pain at that red light, and I decided to run it.” That decision likely saved her life.
She recalls the doctor who defibrillated her later saying, “You know, you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t run that red light.”
A surprise diagnosis
Chlebek feels lucky to be alive. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for women in the United States, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. Heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions, including coronary artery disease and heart attack. Common symptoms that women experience during a heart attack include shortness of breath, chest pains that go away and come back, cold sweats, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach, nausea and lightheadedness.
Chlebek, like many women, initially discounted her symptoms. But she eventually listened to her body and took action. “Women's symptoms can be so different from a man's and that's why women do need to know how heart attacks can present in women,” says Chlebek, now 60. “It can seem like cold and flu symptoms or vomiting.”
And despite increased awareness about heart disease, only a little more than half of women recognize that it is their #1 killer. Chlebek was in that minority.
Prior to her heart attack, Chlebek never thought she was at risk for heart disease. She lived a fairly healthy lifestyle, which included frequent walking and a relatively healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and salads. Of course, there was the occasional pizza. “Honestly, I didn't even really think about heart disease,” she says. “I did think about breast cancer. I feel like there's a lot of public campaigns on that and it's typically something you read about happening to younger women, but I never thought about heart disease hitting me at that point in life.”
But she didn’t consider her family history of heart disease would impact her at such a young age. Chlebek’s mom, as well as a couple of her uncles suffered from heart disease, but none of them were as young as she was at the time of her heart attack. Family history puts you at higher risk of developing heart disease. Other risk factors include: diabetes, overweight or obesity, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and too much alcohol.
Road to recovery
Chlebek’s healing journey was slow and steady. Once she arrived at the hospital, she was immediately given CPR and was defibrillated with one shock. Doctors put in a stent (a tiny tube) to open a blocked artery and keep blood flowing. Then she spent one week in cardiac ICU. “I was in a lot of pain and my heart wasn’t functioning well,” she recalls. “I also had a balloon pump to help my heart pump better.”
Her physical recovery was expected, but she found her mental health took longer to mend. “I could physically get on a treadmill and I could change my eating habits, but the mental challenges were very tough for me,” she says. Chlebek found it difficult to even walk to the mailbox out of fear of dropping dead from another heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest.
Developing mental health issues after a traumatic medical event are not uncommon. In fact, a percentage of people with no history of depression may become depressed after a heart attack or after developing heart failure. Research has shown that as many as 1 in 5 people who have a heart attack develop depression soon after.
A new beginning
With the help of her family and a strong social network, Chlebek was able to turn things around. She’s made successful lifestyle changes: exercising five days per week and eating lean meats, more fruits and vegetables and avoiding foods containing trans fats and hydrogenated oils. Plus, Chlebek leaned on the heart disease support group called WomenHeart, the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, to keep her motivated throughout her journey.
“My WomenHeart bond is very, very strong,” she says. “I was able to connect with a lot of women that have heart disease and that are very good friends of mine. We're all like-minded and want to give back and help other people avoid heart disease, and if they have heart disease, to live better, healthier lives.”
In addition to those lifestyle changes, Chlebek now monitors her blood pressure and cholesterol numbers in an effort to stay heart healthy. Prior to her diagnosis, she rarely checked them. Knowing your numbers is key to lowering your risk of heart disease, experts say. While lifestyle changes and checking your numbers are great ways to keep heart disease at bay, some people may require medication or surgical procedures like Chlebek.
This entire experience has been enlightening for Chlebek. That’s why she hopes sharing her story raises awareness about women and heart disease. And she wants people to know it isn’t an “old person’s disease.” She’s now passing those lessons to her children. “All three of my children Sarah, 31, Sam, 22, and Sophie, 16, are very aware of their heart disease risk,” she says. “They all eat healthy diets and are very active. Knowing they're at risk means they must be very proactive and do everything they can to beat the odds.” While her children are on a healthy path, Chlebek wants to inspire others to make healthy changes to reduce their risks.
“Life is good and life is a blessing,” Chlebek says. “I want to give back in thankfulness for that, that I'm so blessed to have survived sudden cardiac arrest. There's just a lot more living to be done.”
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- 2. American Heart Association. Fifteen-Year Trends in Awareness of Heart Diseases in Women Circulation. Accessed March 6, 2020.
- 3. American Heart Association. Heart Attack Symptoms in Women. July 31, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2020.
- 4. American Heart Association. Facts About Heart Disease in Women. Accessed on March 12, 2020.
- 5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women and Heart Disease. January 31, 2020. Accessed February 27, 2020.
- 6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Coronary Artery Disease: Prevention, Treatment and Research. Accessed on March 6, 2020.
- 7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Depression and Heart Disease. Accessed on February 27, 2020.