Words by Allison Mariotti
How one student found strength through her mother’s unexpected heart attack
My mom told me earlier she wasn’t feeling well. Just heartburn, she said.
It’s a June night in our Chicago suburb. I’m upstairs zoning out in front of the television, watching some MTV awards show, when I hear something. It sounds like a yelp of pain from downstairs. The only other person home is my mom, and I’m suddenly no longer paying attention to the blinding white smiles of the celebrities on TV.
I rush down the stairs, praying nothing is wrong. She’s a survivor, I remind myself. When she was 38, my mom fought stage IIIB breast cancer and is currently in remission. One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime and my mom was one of them. Before that, she did kickboxing every other day. Never smoked. Never drank. She’s strong.
The downstairs bathroom door is open. My heart drops when I see my mom sprawled on the floor, visibly in pain. To see her suffering — the woman who raised me, who always stayed so strong, who never once complained — felt like a kick in the stomach.
“What happened?” I yell at her a little too loud. I ask if she’s OK. In labored breaths, she manages to say “Chest hurts. Call.”
Shaking, I grab the phone and call an ambulance.
As I hang up the phone, I corral our two dogs upstairs and lock them in my bedroom. I explain to them that I’ll be back soon. Hopefully. They stare at me blankly and start sniffing around for food.
As I’m unlocking the front door, I see the ambulance pulling into the driveway. At that moment, the phone rings and my dogs start barking from upstairs. I peek at the caller ID and see the name of our nosy neighbor. I ignore it.
The paramedics are at the door. My dogs are still barking. The phone rings again. I don’t know if I can handle this, but I pull myself together and let the paramedics in. I show them where my mom is and they put her on the stretcher. I can’t watch, so I start to gather my things with shaking hands. Wallet. Cell phone. What else do I need? I can’t think. I’m staring at a wall when one of the paramedics taps me on the shoulder.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“Can you drive to the hospital, or would you rather ride in the ambulance?”
I immediately want to say ambulance. I don’t know if I can drive in this state. But then I may be stuck at the hospital for the night.
I tell him I’ll drive and grab the keys. A paramedic tells me they’ll be taking her to Condell Hospital. I feel heat rushing to my cheeks as I tell him I have no idea how to get there. Yes, I explain, I’ve lived here for 15 years and don’t know how to get anywhere. No sense of direction. I get it from my mom.
By some miracle, I manage to make it to the hospital right as the ambulance arrives. I realize I probably shouldn’t have driven so fast. I explain to the lady at reception that I’m there to see my mom and give her her name. They tell me her room number and directions. Proceed through the double doors. Turn left at the first hallway. Then right at the next hallway. There will be another set of double doors. She’ll be in a room on the right.
I head towards the double doors, repeating the directions in my head. It’s too late when I realize I’ve missed a turn and I’m lost in the labyrinth of the hospital. I just want to see my mom.
After what seems like a lifetime, I find her room. I don’t enter right away because I feel a lump in my throat. If my mom can be strong enough to get through this, I can stay strong for her.
I stay with my mom for a few hours. The doctor does some blood tests and finds no indication it was a heart attack, but they decide to keep her overnight. Misdiagnosis of heart attacks in women is common because of the different symptoms they experience. Studies show women are less likely to receive cardiac rehabilitation than men. Still, I take the doctor’s word that this was simply a case of bad heartburn.
On the drive home, I hold back tears so I can see the road. I walk into the house. I expect my dogs to greet me at the door, forgetting I locked them upstairs. I open my bedroom door to my dogs sleeping on my bed. I crawl in next to them and let myself cry.
My mom had major blockage in three of the arteries leading to her heart, which required a triple bypass the next day. The following week was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to endure. Seeing her in such pain after open-heart surgery was agonizing.
More than 200,000 women die each year from heart attacks — five times as many women as breast cancer. When my mom had breast cancer, we were afraid we would lose her. But with this heart attack, I had no warning. In an instant, my life had changed.
Heart attack symptoms in women aren’t as typical as you would expect. The major symptom of a heart attack is the obvious, crushing chest pain. Yet sometimes, women don’t experience that chest pain prior to or even during a heart attack. Part of the reason my mom’s heart attack progressed so far was because she mistook the early pain as indigestion.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which has been another reminder to make sure my loved ones and I stay healthy this year. The best way to prevent diseases like this is early detection and understanding your risk.
Since her surgery, my mom has maintained a healthy lifestyle and has no additional problems. Her immune system is weakened because of the chemotherapy, so we’re still cautious. I’m grateful my mom is still with us and I’ve learned that you can never be too careful when it comes to your health.