Lisa Zimmer shouldn’t have had a heart attack.
She had no history of heart disease in her family and had never had any serious illness. She had always been active, as a swimmer in high school, then a marathoner and triathlete as an adult.
Turns out, heart disease doesn’t always care if you are an athlete.
I read about Lisa’s 2012 heart attack on Facebook. I knew of Lisa, owner of three Fleet Feet Sports stores in Chicago, so the news was shocking and hit close to home. I followed the posts until Lisa responded that she was recovering.
Six months later at the Chicago Women’s Half Marathon in June, Lisa, representing Fleet Feet Sports, set the tone for this great event. She welcomed the runners and recognized the important work of Go Red for Women, the American Heart Association’s initiative to empower women to take charge of their heart health. An emotional Lisa was so appreciative for the opportunity to run. All the runners were silent as she told her story, one that could be their own. It was a powerful plea to all to care for their heart health.
Lisa was at home in December 2012, caring for her two young children, ages 9 and 7. Dave, her husband and business partner, called from out of town to check in. During their conversation, Lisa said, “I don’t feel right.” She told Dave she wanted to go lie down, but Dave wisely kept her on the phone. She began to feel nauseated, felt extreme pressure on her chest and pain and numbness down her left arm. Dave insisted she hang up and call 911 immediately.
The 911 operator, after listening to her symptoms, instructed Lisa to take a baby aspirin, which happened to be in the house. With paramedics a few blocks away, Lisa had medical care within minutes and was rushed to Glenbrook Hospital.
After stabilizing Lisa, Dr. Michael Salinger ordered a coronary angiogram, which allows a camera to view the heart. He diagnosed a spontaneous coronary dissection (sometimes referred to as a “broken heart”), a tear in the lining of the artery which blocked blood flow to Lisa’s heart. This condition is not common in active, healthy adults like Lisa. No surgery was required, but Lisa’s heart needed time, rest and medication to help thin her blood and allow her heart to heal. Dr. Salinger told her that “time is muscle,” meaning the faster a heart attack is treated, the less damage there is to the heart muscle. Lisa was lucky.
According to Dr. Salinger, “Women are more likely to suffer unusual heart attacks, like spontaneous dissection.” For that reason, women need to seek immediate medical attention at the onset of the warning signs:
- Chest pain at rest
- Shortness of breath with exertion
- Pain in the arm, jaw or back
- Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
After six weeks of very limited activity, Lisa took a stress test and passed with flying colors. Since Lisa’s lifestyle isn’t stereotypical of heart disease, doctors believe stress may have played a role.
As a result of this life-changing event, Lisa now lives a bit differently. She eliminated non-critical responsibilities, reserving energy for her family, eating even healthier, and appreciating her limited exercise time. She finished the half marathon, running slowly and walking for portions.
Lisa supports the efforts of Go Red for Women, hoping to bring greater awareness to heart disease, the number one killer of women.
“Listen to your body,” she says. “We are not indestructible.”