Heart Attack, *Not* Heart Failure: Part 1

In honor of DWN’s participation in the American Heart Association Heart Walk this fall, Aileen K. Johnson is sharing her personal story of heart attack and recovery in a two-part series to emphasize the importance to women’s heart health. Read Part 1 now and check back on Aug. 16 for Part 2.

At 40 years old on Oct. 4, 1997, at 1:22 p.m., I experienced my first heart attack. You immediately know there is something going on in your body: the instant the attack happens there is a different flow within your body. I experienced an immediate rush of heat from my feet to my head and I began to sweat uncontrollably. I raised both arms straight out as if I were about to fly and noticed a current of energy/pressure flowing from fingertip to fingertip. The only way I know how to describe it is what the current might feel like in a clear lightbulb. This heart attack was considered an inferior heart attack that takes place in the back portion of the heart. The pressure or pain point of this heart attack settled in my shoulders. It felt as though a 500-pound person was resting on both shoulders and I felt some chest discomfort.

Before I shared what happened to me with my husband (now ex-husband), the thought went through my head that the health challenge I was going through came from my mother’s (Native American) side of the family. My mother had six sisters and one brother. All have since passed from heart complications except for one sister who is my godmother and is currently 89. My brother (Ali) had triple bypass and stents placed in his arteries due to heart issues. My oldest sister (Pamela) has since died from a massive heart attack, and my twin sister has been diagnosed with hypertension and cholesterol issues and is likely to have heart complications.

When the ambulance personnel came to take me to the hospital, they could not get a pulse reading. I was still experiencing that electrical rush sensation from fingertip to fingertip. I instructed them to go to the lower region to get a reading. I expressed that I was experiencing a heart attack and for her to PLEASE treat me as if I were a heart patient. I shared that my mother’s side of the family had heart disease and shared with her my recent experience. It was hard for everyone to believe because I was only overweight by 8 pounds and never had high blood pressure or any symptoms of heart condition issues. I did not overuse alcohol, smoke cigarettes or do drugs. And mainly due to my age, it was hard to believe.

When we got in the ambulance, I overheard the ambulance attendee (Jessica) call the emergency room physician (Dr. Greene). I remember him asking Jessica my age, was I overweight, the drug and smoking questions. I interrupted her conversation and said, “Tell him my family history.” After that, Dr. Greene instructed them to give me the drug heparin, an immediate blood thinner. They thought there could possibly be some blockage.

Dr. Greene was the absolute best. He took care of me as if I was his daughter. I asked my ex to call my best friend (Karen) who was in the medical field to tell her what was happening to me. When she came to the emergency room she went straight to the heparin drip and said, “They have you on a very high dosage, do you know what this drug is for?” I said, “No but the pain in my shoulders is much better.” She said the drug was to thin my blood so it can flow properly to my brain. She then said I would be bleeding from some part of my body due to the thinning. She was right—soon I began to bleed from my mouth, where I had had a root canal a few weeks earlier. After gauzing and the amazement of the nurse, Karen asked me the exact time of the attack. I told her 1:22 p.m. and she went to find the doctor.

What I found out a month later at a dinner party at Karen’s is that she asked Dr. Greene to give me a new drug called TPA. She explained to me that it had only been on the market for a year but it was like a Band-Aid for the heart because once the heart had been attacked, TPA would repair the damage. However, it had SERIOUS side effects and I had to have it within three hours of the attack. At the moment of discussing this with Dr. Greene, I had a 45-minute window. If it worked it would be a great treatment. If it didn’t and my body rejected the drug, I would not make it. Dr. Greene was very concerned about using it and wasn’t 100 percent sure I had had a heart attack. Karen suggested, due to my medical history, I had more than likely had a heart attack and at 40 she wanted to see my heart healthy again. Karen suggested Dr. Greene speak to the chief surgeon in charge of emergency to see if he could try running a little of the TPA through my heparin IV to see if I had any side effects. It was decided, and I remember the look on both Karen and Dr. Greene’s faces when the TPA was injected. It was one of hopefulness and anticipation.

As you read my account of this, you can see trying the new medicine was a great decision. However, 18 hours later I experienced a massive heart attack due to what I believe was an inaccurate call of the appointed cardiac doctor …. [To be continued.]


A heart attack is an ACUTE disorder. It occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood through a coronary artery (a blood vessel that feeds blood to a part of the heart muscle).

Heart failure is a CHRONIC condition in which there is an intrinsic and immediate disorder of the heart muscle.

It is very important for the reader to know the difference between a heart attack and heart failure. Even though both conditions are very serious, a heart attack exhibits telling signs that something is seriously wrong or the disorder occurs before the heart is attacked. Symptoms differ between women and men, such as dizziness, hypertension, intense sweating, painful shoulders, arm pain, shortness of breath, extreme chest pain or a combination of these symptoms. Heart failure is the moment in which the heart fails to work properly and when the heart patient develops a serious heart condition. This condition can lead to immediate death and/or major surgery and other life-altering complications. In heart failure, there is quick death of the tissue that surrounds the heart organ.

Aileen K. Johnson is a member of DWN’s Service and Outreach team and is assistant director of conference services at DePaul University. Check back here on Aug. 16 for Part 2 of Aileen’s story.

Aileen Johnson
Aileen K. Johnson in Summer 2011

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