Shannon’s story starts as most stories do — even stories that forever change your life.
It was a day that started just like any other day. For Shannon, that meant dropping off her two young, bubbly children at school and heading to the local Rec. Center for a brisk walk around the track. What started as a normal workout soon took an unexpected turn.
Within 15 minutes of realizing she wasn’t feeling right, Shannon found herself in the back of an ambulance, being rushed to Good Samaritan Medical Center. But we’re jumping ahead. In the beginning, she didn’t think she was having a heart attack.
“The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t keep up a conversation while walking around the track,” Shannon said. “I just thought I was out of shape!”
So, she tried something else: a few minutes on a stationary bike. But that left her feeling disoriented and “floaty.” She got off the bike and sat down. Here’s where the avalanche starts to rumble.
She felt dizzy. There was a burning sensation in her throat and lungs, and an ache= started to throb in her left arm and jaw. She made it to her feet but she couldn’t walk. She sat down and called her husband. She couldn’t move her left side. A close friend with a medical background witnessed all of this and called 9-1-1. At this point, Shannon knew something was seriously wrong. Still, as a 36-year-old woman in great shape, a wife and mother of two small children, she couldn’t believe she was having a heart attack. But she was.
Paramedics arrived and performed an electrocardiogram, better known as an EKG, right in the Rec. Center. It revealed abnormalities in the way Shannon’s heart was functioning, so paramedics contacted Good Samaritan, which called a Cardiac Alert — the immediate assembly of a specialized team to receive a patient experiencing a heart attack. Shannon arrived, and if her morning hadn’t been weird enough, for a moment it was about to get weirder.
“My EKG in the hospital was normal, and by this time I was feeling fine,” Shannon said. “In fact, the only thing I felt was embarrassed for having whipped up so much unnecessary drama. I felt foolish.”
But no one on the Cardiac Alert team was fooled. Cardiovascular Disease specialist Dr. Rajesh Sharma, from the SCL Health Heart & Vascular Institute, thought this symptom behavior looked a lot like SCAD, an uncommon heart condition most commonly seen in young and middle-aged women. The next few moments would prove him right. As quickly as her original symptoms descended on her earlier that morning, they happened again. Her heart rhythm changed and her blood pressure dropped. She was rushed to the Cath Lab so Dr. Sharma could take a closer look.
SCAD stands for Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. It’s a condition by which a tear in the coronary artery creates a tunnel within the wall that can block blood flow to the heart or cause an abnormal heart rhythm. Because symptoms can arise and then disappear, it can be difficult to diagnose. The condition is most common among young and middle-aged women who are otherwise healthy.
“After seeing about 50 or 60 of these, I knew what I was looking at and how to treat it,” said Dr. Sharma. “The key to effective treatment for SCAD is early detection and quick intervention. We also follow these patients pretty aggressively after they leave to make sure their recovery progresses as it should.”
While many SCAD patients can be treated medically, Shannon’s case proved more difficult. After a recurrence of symptoms several days later, she had a stent inserted in her artery to physically seal the tear and force healing. Five days after finding herself out of breath on the phone and two heart attacks later, Shannon returned to her young family at home and began the new normal of life’s everyday moments.
“It’s been a process and it’s taken a while. It’s a journey we’re still on,” Shannon said. “Dr. Sharma told me from the beginning I’d be OK, and he repeated that assurance often. But it took me about six months to finally shed the fear and sadness I was living with; to allow myself to believe his words that I would be OK.”
In addition to the psychological residue of having a cardiac event, physical symptoms still linger for Shannon, which is common for SCAD patients. Nearly a year and a half later, she tires quickly and needs to schedule rest into her day. She also experiences occasional fleeting pain that can affect any part of her body.
“My life is very different now, but every day it gets better,” she said. “We’re healing together, and we’re good.”
Speaking with other SCAD patients has helped Shannon cope, so she’s partnered with GSMC to launch a SCAD Support Group at the hospital, the first of its kind in Colorado.
Click HERE to learn more.