Dawn the survivor: A heart attack story

[5 MIN READ]  

In this article: 

  • It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack because, as the experts say, “time is muscle.” 

  • Dawn Holy was in her early 50s when she experienced a “widowmaker” heart attack. Fortunately, she got help in time and made a full recovery. 

  • Some lesser-known symptoms of a heart attack include nausea, sweating, vomiting and indigestion. 

As Dawn Holy walked her dog Hazel up and down the hills near her home in Pullman, Washington, she took a deep breath and felt a sharp pain in her chest. The pain radiated up into her jaw and then down again into her arm, and there wasn’t a doubt in her mind as to what she was experiencing—a heart attack. 

She just wasn’t expecting to experience such a life-changing event in her early 50s. 

Holy had undergone some medical training years before, so she knew that when it comes to a heart attack, “time is muscle,” which means that with every passing minute, more heart muscle dies. She brought her dog home and went straight to the local emergency room, where she told the doctors what was going on. Then, she lost consciousness. 

That hospital didn’t have a heart catheterization lab—a specialized area used to perform tests and procedures to diagnose heart problems—so doctors there called Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, home to the world-class Providence Heart Institute. Right away, her caregivers started talking with Providence cardiologist Brydan Curtis, D.O., F.A.C.C., who began instructing them on how they could best care for Holy as they were transferring her.  

As a result of that close collaboration, Dr. Curtis and his team were ready for Holy right when her Life Flight helicopter landed in Spokane, which is 75 miles away from her home in Pullman. 

The right treatment at the right time 

Because the team at the Providence Spokane Heart Institute had received Holy’s imaging tests before she arrived, they knew that she was suffering from an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). A STEMI is a particularly bad type of heart attack in which a major artery to the heart is blocked. Doctors often call it a “widowmaker” because it is more deadly than other types of heart attacks. 

“My family said that when they arrived at the hospital,” Holy said, “they were greeted by the chaplain, because there was a very good chance I wouldn’t survive.” 

The main reason why so many patients die after suffering a STEMI is because they go into cardiac arrest, a situation in which their heart stops beating because of an irregular rhythm. Indeed, Holy went into cardiac arrest after she arrived at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and Dr. Curtis and his team had to shock her heart back into a normal rhythm to save her life. 

Then, he performed a heart catheterization during which he opened up the blocked artery and inserted a stent to keep it open. 

Miraculously, Holy was able to make a full recovery from the heart attack “I’m one of the blessed ones,” she said. “If Dr. Curtis and the heart catheterization team hadn’t been ready when I got off the helicopter, I might not be here right now.” 

Symptoms of a heart attack 

Holy is incredibly grateful that she had the background knowledge to recognize symptoms of a heart attack in time — and she urges others on this World Heart Day to do the same. While most people are aware that chest pains can be a symptom of a heart attack, they may not realize that there are other, less-known symptoms, including: 

  • Nausea 
  • Sweating 
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Vomiting 
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back 
  • Indigestion 
  • Heartburn 
  • Abnormal heartbeat 

Women, in particular, are more likely than men to have unusual symptoms of a heart attack. “That’s why a lot of women die from heart attacks, because they don’t realize what’s happening,” Holy said. 

Dr. Curtis pointed out that for some people, the symptoms of a heart attack can mimic those of other, less-serious problems, including indigestion. “The biggest difference when it’s a heart attack is that the symptoms come on suddenly, and they don’t go away,” he said. “If you have symptoms that won’t go away, it’s best to go to the emergency room. I’d rather my patients be overly cautious than not seek help when their life could be in danger.” 

How to prevent heart disease 

Some risk factors for heart disease — such as genetics, in Holy’s case — are out of your control. However, there are other steps you can take to lower your risk of a heart attack or other cardiac event, according to Dr. Curtis. Those steps include: 

  • Stopping smoking 
  • Keeping track of your blood pressure and controlling it 
  • Controlling your blood sugar if you have diabetes 
  • Exercising 
  • Treating your cholesterol if it’s too high  

“Some people with heart problems have a sudden onset, which is hard to control,” Dr. Curtis said. “But for others, symptoms grow over time. It’s important to identify those signs of heart disease and take steps to become healthier.”

Contributing Caregiver 

Brydan Curtis, D.O., F.A.C.C., is a cardiologist with Providence in Spokane, Washington. 

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Related resources 

Fast heart attack care saves Spokane man from widow-maker 

Why women need different health care than men 

8 ways to start lowering your blood pressure 

Heart disease in Black and Hispanic women 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.