The chest pains began during a board meeting for the public library Cheryl Lawson oversaw.
Indigestion, she thought. She walked around a bit, trying to ignore it, until a reminder came in the form of a slamming pain that shot up her chest and into her neck.
Cheryl stayed in the meeting, sometimes breathing heavily, occasionally feeling a tugging in her heart. She never let on, though, and then retreated to her office. When the symptoms slowed, she figured the worst had passed, so she kept working until it was time to lock the doors.
She sent everyone else home, but stayed in the office. Knowing she wasn’t truly OK, a thought came to her: “What if a co-worker comes to the library tomorrow morning and sees me on the floor dead in front of her? How would that look?”
So Cheryl finally sought help. Sort of. Instead of calling 9-1-1, she drove herself to a nearby hospital – all the while feeling recurring chest pains, tightness in her left arm and shortness of breath.
She was within a 5-minute walk of the emergency room when the pain grew unbearable. Cheryl reached for her cell phone to call for help.
The battery was dead.
“I prayed,” she said. “All I could think of was my family. My girls, my husband – they needed me.”
Somehow, Cheryl found enough strength to reach the ER. An electrocardiogram (EKG) showed that her heart’s electrical activity was normal. A blood test told a different story. The doctor rushed in with eyes as big as saucers; her problem was too grave for this hospital to handle.
An ambulance rushed Cheryl an hour and a half to a hospital in Dallas. There, she was diagnosed with broken heart syndrome.
Despite a name that conveys cartoon images, broken heart syndrome is a real condition. It’s also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. (Tako tsubo is Japanese for octopus traps that resemble the pot-like shape of the stricken heart.)
When it hits, a part of the heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well; meanwhile, the rest of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.
Cheryl went into cardiac arrest because of the extensive overload to her heart, lack of oxygen and a suspected blood clot. Doctors performed a cardiac catheterization to get a better understanding of what was happening in her heart.
During that procedure, Cheryl received two stents - tiny, mesh-like tubes that prop open arteries – to ensure proper blood flow in her heart. Something else happened: her right main coronary artery collapsed. Her doctor later told her she was the third person he’d seen that happen to; she was the lone survivor.
The most common symptoms of broken heart syndrome are chest pain and shortness of breath. It can strike someone with no history of heart disease, like Cheryl.
Women are more likely than men to experience the sudden, intense chest pain thought to be caused by a surge of stress hormones. The trigger could be the death of a loved one, divorce or even shockingly good news such as winning the lottery.
Since her traumatic event in 2008, Cheryl has made some changes.
Her job included a daily trek of 200 miles each way, with only occasional overnight stays. She stuck with it for a while, but when her health slipped again, she realized enough was enough.
Daily exercise is part of Cheryl’s prescription for healthy living, and she is excited to take part in the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk. She’s become an advocate for heart health in women, learning more about Go Red For Women and the harsh reality that heart disease claims more women’s lives each year than all forms of cancer combined.
“Sometimes, with the society we live in and our need to validate who we are through our professions and what we do, we open ourselves up to stress,” she said. “I wish I’d known more about the damage that sudden stress can cause and want to do my part in alerting others.”
She’s keeping a closer watch on her own stress level, retreating to a quiet place during the day to decompress. She also researches current literature about broken heart syndrome on the American Heart Association’s website, attends health workshops and practices meditation to continue her quest to develop inner peace.
"Don't take life too seriously," she said. “Stay flexible to the changes life brings. Also take time to enjoy your life – friends, family, pets, nature – it’s really the simple things that matter most. Mitigate stress at all costs, because it is a silent killer that attacks when we least expect it. Believe me it is not a joke, stress kills."