At 41, Carrie Woodward was as healthy as she’d ever been. Knowing that her family has a history of high cholesterol, heart disease and heart attacks, Woodward did everything she could to be healthy. An elite marathon runner, she’d completed 10 marathons in as many years, including Boston twice and New York once. The mother of four boys works as fitness instructor, leading aerobics classes and assisting with coaching two cross country teams. She and her husband, Dave, have their own fitness company in Murrieta, California, that focuses on diet, weight loss and fitness. That’s why, in September, no one – including her doctors – wanted to believe she was having a heart attack.
It happened in the middle of an aerobics class she was leading. A few minutes in, her chest got tight and she struggled to breathe. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” she thought to herself. But as she mentally searched for the well known symptoms – pains up and down your arm, an elephant-like weight sitting on your chest – she found nothing.
It was actually the third episode in recent weeks. During the first two, she had been running. She felt lightheaded and nauseous, so she stopped and went home to rest. Again, she wasn’t feeling the familiar symptoms of a heart attack, so she didn’t worry too much. But today, she felt a sense of urgency. She quickly drove herself to the hospital and described what was happening. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” she told them.
She underwent an EKG, which came back abnormal. Still, the doctor was suspicious. “I don’t think you’re having a heart attack, because you just don’t fit the profile,” he told her. He added that he thought she was stressed, and wanted to do more tests, including an angiogram. What he found was exactly what Woodward suspected: She was having a heart attack.
In fact, her left descending artery was 100 percent blocked. Following a surgery to insert a stint in her arm, her doctor told her that because she was in such strong physical condition, her body had managed to form tiny capillaries off the blockage, allowing for blood to still flow. That was the only thing that saved her life.
After going through the ordeal, herself, Woodward was shocked to learn that heart disease is actually the No. 1 killer among women. She was also shocked to find that her symptoms were, indeed, indicative of a heart attack – in a woman. Females and males experience different signs, and for women, chest pressure is not always present. Symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, fatigue, back pressure and lightheadedness may actually indicate a heart attack.
“I feel so grateful to be alive, I can’t even tell you,” says Woodward. “The doctors told me over and over again the only thing that saved my life was how active I was because of my genetic issues.”
At home, Woodward slowly adjusted to the new stint. The first few weeks, she says she had chest pains from her body adjusting to the stint. But beyond the pain was a new sense of fear: What if it happened again?
When she was able to start working out again, she stuck to the treadmill, afraid something might happen while she was far from home. But today, two months after the heart attack, she’s getting back to herself.
She says running feels amazing now that she’s healthy again – she ran eight miles the morning of our interview. Woodward says that she’s signed up for a half marathon in Phoenix in March, but she’s not putting any pressure on herself to break any records. She’s simply trying to get back to normal. “I think the hardest thing going through this is you want to get back on your feet, and you want to feel like yourself again so badly, and you want to feel like it’s something that you overcame,” she says. “I felt like if I could get out there and run again, and race again, then I would feel like I beat it. I overcame it.”
Kate Silver is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Men’s Health, Chicago Tribune and other online and print publications.