Charlotte Chambliss never wondered why she was tired and occasionally short of breath – the reasons seemed obvious. She was 55 years old, a full-time cosmetologist who helped care for her elderly mother. Yes, she was a former smoker. But she’d quit 11 years ago. Yes, she had high blood pressure, but she was taking medication to manage it. Although she didn’t exercise regularly, she ate right and was always on her feet, both at home and at work.
“I was quite healthy,” she reasoned. On May 21, that opinion was challenged. Chambliss complained of feeling “ridiculously fatigued” at a coffee tasting she attended. “I’m tired all through here,” she told her sister while moving her hands from her chest to her head. Shortly thereafter while playing with her granddaughter, she suffered a heart attack.
Paramedics were called and successfully resuscitated her within minutes. But a couple of days later, Chambliss was still unconscious. A subsequent catheterization showed all her arteries were normal except one – which was 90 percent blocked. Upon discovery, a metal coil, called a stent, was inserted into her artery to open it up, although Chambliss remained in critical condition. The cardiologist who treated her, UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute associate chief Dr. Barry Effron, says he thinks the artery was completely blocked when Chambliss collapsed.
“Only 4 percent of people who have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest ultimately survive and leave the hospital with no neurological injury – that’s despite all the automatic external defibrillators and 911 calls,” he explains. “Most of the time, you don’t get to people soon enough. And when you do get to them soon enough, even if you bring the heart back, there’s inadequate blood flow to the brain that causes some neurological or cognitive issue.”
Chambliss was one of the lucky 4 percent. She woke up a week later with no signs of impaired brain function. Effron credits her recovery to her relative youthfulness, responsive EMS intervention, the stent angioplasty and the cooling blankets used to lower her body temperature in the hours after she arrived at UH. The rapid cooling, he explains, preserves the metabolism of brain cells and prevents irreversible injury to them. After her hospitalization, she was discharged with medication to lower her cholesterol and inhibit blood-clotting, both of which contribute to coronary blockages and help to better control her blood pressure.
Chambliss has since invested in a treadmill she walks on throughout the week for at least 30 minutes. And she’s modified the diet she once thought was adequate to include more fish and vegetables.
The lesson Chambliss is now quick to share: see your doctor if you don’t feel normal.
Women should be aware of the signs and symptoms of heart attack, and know that females may present with atypical symptoms such as Chambliss’ extreme fatigue.
By Lynne Thompson, as featured in the American Heart Association Go Red for Women special section of Cleveland Magazine, February 2012