‘A little bell went off in my head.’ Heart attack survivor’s critical message for women

Heart Health

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It’s the number one killer of women: heart disease. The statistics are staggering as 1 in 3 women will die from a heart attack in their lifetime. Yet, many women don’t think they’re at risk. But experts say you need to be aware that you could be -- and not even know it.

February is women's heart health awareness month which is why I sat down with Katheryne Stevenson, a echocardiogram technologist from Hendersonville, who works at Novant Health in Charlotte.

She recalled the first sign she was having a heart attack last summer. “I had a little shortness of breath,” she said. “It was just enough to just [exhales] a deep sigh and then I kept going.

Though very subtle, she instinctively knew it wasn’t the norm for her. “[I] didn’t think much of it at the time, but I thought, that’s a little odd…a little bell went off in the back of my head.”

The first of several bells that would add up to the scariest hour of the 54 year old’s life.

Warning sign number two: she tried to take a power nap. “I laid down on the bed and I couldn’t get comfortable,” she said. “Flipped to one side, flipped to the other side. It’s a little hot. Again, another little bell went off in my head. No chest pain at the time or anything like that but I decided I’m going to get up and take two aspirin and took some seltzer water. And maybe a little indigestion there - I’ve never had indigestion. And darn, another little bell went off in my head.”

Her next move -- to lay in her recliner -- led to an unmistakable sense of doom. “I scooted up and said, ‘oh my goodness, this is when people die.’ Because when they can’t get comfortable in their bed, they move to their recliner and they pass away and don’t even know it. And as I moved forward, I felt a little chest pain at the time and I thought, ‘hmm’.”

Now certain something was terribly wrong, the 30 year veteran of the cardio field – she’s an echocardiography technologist, someone who does ultrasounds on hearts- immediately asked her husband to take her to the hospital. “I started to get the gray feeling, the ash color, because the oxygen - the lack of oxygen to the heart,” she remembered. “I started getting the sweating and knew that was another marker of a heart attack.”

She arrived at the emergency room less than ten minutes later where she promptly told the nurse, “I'm having a heart attack because I knew it at that time; and they hooked me up to the EKG right away and said, 'yes you are’.”

The results were dire: Katheryne had a 100 percent blockage of the largest artery in the heart, the left anterior descending or LAD artery. It supplies more than half of your heart with blood and oxygen. It’s also why doctors moved quickly, and less than an hour after having her first symptom, they put a stent in her LAD to reopen it, saving her life.

“It’s not a lot of time,” she told me. “And it wouldn’t have been a lot of time if I’m not in the field and I wouldn’t have taken action, I wouldn’t be sitting here today talking with you. I firmly do believe that.“

Even with all her experience and training, Katheryne admits she still – initially-- brushed off her symptoms. “They were so subtle,” she said “Even being in the field for 30 years, I had to go back thinking could this possibly be?”

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Dr. Sandy Charles, a cardiologist with Novant Health believes it would have been a very different outcome had Katheryne not acted so quickly. “She knows her body and she knows what's normal for her,” she said “Though the symptoms were subtle, I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘Dr. Charles, I knew something in the pit of my stomach was really not right’. It was just like the sense of doom.”

While examining copies of Katheryne’s films from that fateful June day, Dr. Charles’ words to me were very telling. “This type of blockage frequently leads to the heart beating in a dangerous way and leading to something called sudden cardiac death. This could have led to a severely reduced heart function and congestive heart failure. So many things could have happened from this. I’m so thankful that she came as soon as possible.”

It’s why Dr. Charles says it’s vital women don’t brush off any unusual symptoms, no matter how subtle they are. “Your body and your health are all that you have,” she implored. “It allows you to do everything that you want to do. Never question what you’re feeling.”

Katheryne didn’t And thanks to cardiac rehab, she crossed the finish line of SouthPark’s annual Turkey Trot last November, a mere six months after her frightening ordeal. “It was a personal goal of mine, “ she explained. “And I did it. Slow and steady, but I did it. “

She’ll also keep telling her story, reminding as many women as she can about the importance of listening to your body. “You realize something not’s right,” she said. “You can’t put your finger on it but you know that something’s not quite right - check it out. It is - it will save a life…it saved my life.”

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