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Don't wait, your heart may be calling for help

Chest pain. Numbness in the left arm. Shortness of breath. Nausea. All textbook indicators of a heart attack and symptoms you would expect to happen to a male in his 60s.

Sabrina Angeles experienced these symptoms and more, but she's quite the opposite of the stereotypical heart attack victim. The young mother of four is healthy overall and was only 35 when she had a massive heart attack in August.

On Monday, Aug. 11, Angeles began working out with a personal trainer. That evening, she started having chest pains, but they only lasted 20 minutes before receding. She didn't pay much attention to the pain and continued her workout routine the next two days without any issues.

Thursday, Aug. 14, was a different story.

"I got off work and began my workout routine at 9 a.m.," she says. "My chest started hurting after about five minutes on the treadmill. I stopped and waited for the pain to quit, and it did after about 15 minutes, so I tried the treadmill again and the pain came back. I decided to switch gears and lift some light weights, and that's when I lost my breath."

Around 9:30 a.m., Angeles's symptoms were in full swing.

"I started to feel my chest tightening; my left arm and side were numb; I started feeling nauseated," Angeles recalls. "I was in so much pain, I crawled to the bathroom in case I got sick, but I never did. Then I started to have cold sweats. At this point, I was in tears because of the pain." Angeles’s oldest daughter woke up to find her mother in excruciating pain. She called Angeles's boyfriend, who was at work an hour-and-a-half out of town.

"I'm stubborn, and I don't like to go to the doctor, but he forced me to go to the emergency room," Angeles says. "I just kept thinking if I could go to sleep, I would feel better when I woke up."

Typical, but not common

At the emergency room, Angeles underwent an EKG, a chest x-ray and blood work. That's where she met Samia Benslimane, MD, Shannon cardiologist, for the first time.

"A sonogram of her heart revealed an artery with 99 percent blockage, so part of her heart was not moving," Dr. Benslimane says. "If she would have fallen asleep like she wanted, to try and get rid of the pain, she would not have woken up again."

Dr. Benslimane says it is not common for people in their 30s to have plaque buildup in their arteries, so a massive heart attack like Angeles's is very uncommon for her age and gender. "Normally, symptoms of a heart attack in women are atypical, but Sabrina experienced the classic ones," Dr. Benslimane says. "She felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest; she had shortness of breath and nausea. If she was just talking and you couldn't see her to tell her age, you would think she was 30 years older, because that's the normal."

Don't let it happen to you

Fortunately, Angeles's outcome is not grim. But her experience is proof that a heart attack can happen to anyone—regardless of age and gender—and the symptoms must not be ignored. The best part of her situation is that she was healthy before her heart attack occurred.

"She was exercising and using her heart muscle," Dr. Benslimane points out. "If you're not working your muscle, how else are you going to know there is a problem? She wouldn't have experienced the chest pain or shortness of breath by sitting on the couch. This is why at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity—even walking—is important."

Five months after her heart attack, Angeles is still in recovery. She is on a cholesterol medicine, even though her levels are good, to help keep her arteries "smooth" and plaque-free. She also takes aspirin daily and was on a Coumadin regimen due to a blood clot in her heart. She will continue checkups with Dr. Benslimane to make sure her heart is recovering properly.

"I am still processing the fact that I had a heart attack at age 35," Angeles says. "I never thought this would happen to me, much less when I was this young. But I hope my family and friends will learn something from my experience and pay attention to the warning signs and their health."

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