38-year-old learns the surprising reason she had a heart attack

By Jodi Helmer, American Heart Association News

Heart attack survivor Amy Kren (right) with her husband, Brian. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kren)
Heart attack survivor Amy Kren (right) with her husband, Brian. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kren)

As she finished mowing the lawn of her home in Girard, Ohio, Amy Kren had a somewhat familiar feeling.

The shortness of breath and tightness in her chest seemed like another asthma attack. She went into the garage and put a hand on a lawn chair to steady herself and placed her other hand on her chest, trying to catch her breath. The symptoms didn't subside so she went into the house and took a couple puffs of her inhaler, hoping the medicine would help.

Her husband, Brian, suggested calling 911. She refused, insisting the symptoms would pass.

They didn't. Worse, she started to feel like a blood pressure cuff was squeezing her left arm. Now Amy was ready to call 911.

The paramedics did an electrocardiogram and gave her nitroglycerin and baby aspirin. As tears streamed down her face, she thought, "Why would a 38-year-old be having a heart attack?"

At the hospital, a team of health care workers rushed to her side. That prompted Amy to think about her children. She wondered, "What if I don't ever get to see them again?"

Brian couldn't comfort her. This was 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from joining her inside the hospital.

"You never think this is going to happen to you (and) you naturally think the worst," Brian said. "Not being able to be there with her contributed to the surrealness of the whole situation."

Heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries. Usually, the blockages are caused by plaque. In Amy's case, the blockages came from blood clots. Doctors removed them via a catheterization procedure.

Tests revealed the blood clots were linked to a genetic risk associated with her birth control pills. (Estrogen-based contraceptives do increase the risk of blood clots, and women with an inherited clotting disorder, family history of blood clots, surgery, obesity and extended travel are at higher risk.)

Amy didn't know any of that. It's a risk that won't impact her son but one that she'll eventually have to explain it to her daughters, now 13 and 9. They will need to have bloodwork done to look for the gene before going on birth control.

Amy Kren (far right) with her family, from left: Son Larry, husband Brian, and daughters Sophia and Cecilia. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kren)
Amy Kren (far right) with her family, from left: Son Larry, husband Brian, and daughters Sophia and Cecilia. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kren)

She'll also teach them about the warning signs of a heart attack, something else she wishes she'd known sooner. For instance, weeks before her heart attack, she'd experienced extreme fatigue, back pain, swollen ankles and profuse sweating without realizing her body was sending her a message.

"Those were signs that I ignored," she said. "Had I not experienced that great pain (in my left arm), I probably would've just taken some Tylenol or ibuprofen and gone about my day."

After leaving the hospital, Amy felt leg pain and swelling. She called her cardiologist several times to make sure those were a normal part of recovery. She also feared having another heart attack.

"I was happy to come home to see my kids, but the fear of it happening again and not having the medical team right there if anything were to happen scared me to death," she said. "I was a nervous wreck to leave the hospital."

Since then, Amy has been eating healthier meals, cutting back on salt and caffeine. She lost 30 pounds. Her improved fitness also lowered her chances of another heart attack. Then, this past March, she felt heart palpitations and tightness in her chest.

She went to the hospital and the symptoms turned out to be stress-related. Brian was grateful that she sought immediate medical care, just to be sure. "One of the things we learned through Amy's experience is that when you see the signs, don't hesitate to call," he said.

Amy chose to share her story because she wants to encourage others to understand the importance of seeking immediate medical care.

Amy Kren (left) with her mom, Barb. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kren)
Amy Kren (left) with her mom, Barb. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kren)

At first, she was reluctant to do so because it meant reliving the experience. The more often she tells her story, the stronger she feels. Her perseverance is fueled by responses from women who've heard her speak. Recently, a neighbor's mom experienced heartburn and heart palpitations and went straight to the hospital.

"She told me afterwards that I inspired her to go," Amy said. "If I can help just one person, then what I went through is worth it."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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