Christopher Burnett | Staff Writer
American Heart Month is a significant observation for MacArthur Elementary School kindergarten teacher Susan McGill.
McGill was standing in front of her class one November day when she suddenly and briefly experienced what felt like intense and heavy pressure on her chest. Although the episode only lasted a few seconds, McGill, who was 61 at the time, had actually experienced a major heart attack that would require a quadruple bypass operation to correct. Fortunately, she said doctors told her there was no permanent damage to her heart.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States, affecting more than 300,000 women annually. McGill exhibited what are considered to be classic heart attack warning signs, despite the fact that her entire episode was brief.
“It felt like an 800-pound gorilla sat on my chest for about two seconds and there was minor heartburn beforehand,” McGill said. “It was a strange and unfamiliar feeling. I knew something was seriously wrong, but did not associate what had happened with being a problem with my heart.”
Since this was during the course of a normal school day, McGill said her first instinct was not to alarm her young students. Rather than leave the class immediately, she took an antacid for the heartburn and continued teaching until the end of the class period.
“I went to the school nurse’s office at my next break and described what I had experienced,” McGill said. “The nurse made me contact Munson (Army Health Center) and nurse Tammy Warren told me that I needed to go to the emergency room immediately.”
Upon arriving at the hospital emergency room in Leavenworth, McGill said she underwent a test that confirmed she had experienced a massive heart attack. She said the emergency room physician immediately transferred her to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
“I had a quadruple bypass operation that saved my life,” McGill said. “Since that incident, I’ve learned so much about heart health and risk factors. I also learned that my condition was largely due to hereditary factors.”
The American Medical Association states, like men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
McGill said her mother had a double bypass operation at age 61, and her twin brother experienced the same symptoms McGill had before his heart condition was discovered.
“We both turned 61 on Aug. 18, my brother and I,” McGill said. “Aug. 29, he had his triple bypass and Nov. 13, I had my quadruple bypass.”
Page 2 of 2 - McGill said that she wants to continue to tell as many people as possible to listen to the warning signs given by their own bodies. She said that she’s learned the ideal course of action in her case would have been to include heart health as part of her recurring care management. This would include making an appointment with her primary care physician at MAHC to have a stress test done at the first sign of the heartburn.
“I was having minor heartburn, but not thinking there was anything wrong with my heart since I was working out and in great shape,” McGill said. “I would simply take an antacid and it would go away. I didn’t realize that the antacid had some aspirin in it which subdued the pain, thus masking the underlying issue with my heart.”
Undergoing cardiac rehabilitation was part of McGill’s healing process. She said her husband was significant to her successful rehabilitation.
“I immediately passed on to my siblings and children the need to go have stress tests, since our family is susceptible to heart health risk factors,” McGill said. “Changing your diet, not smoking and getting daily exercise can significantly reduce your risk of atherosclerosis and heart attack. But, it’s also important to know your family health history. I didn’t know my mother had a heart condition until mine was discovered.”
February is American Heart Month Sponsored by the American Heart Association. More information and resources are available online at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/.