Healthy Oklahoma Woman Shares Heart Attack Story
Jan. 27-- Like any Monday night, Shanan Cox was ready for her dance class to begin at 6 p.m. last April 30.
Something was off, though -- she was having a little trouble swallowing. Maybe it was indigestion or heartburn.
As the night went on during the Tulsa Country Western Dance Association (TCWDA)'s lessons, Cox's wrist began hurting. She dismissed it, thinking she was just holding her dance frame too tight and needed to relax.
A few hours later, she was in the hospital with a heart attack. She was only 41.
"I never considered a heart attack," said the active, healthy single mom of three. "I was too young, in good shape, and these were not classic symptoms."
The American Heart Association (AHA) recognizes February as American Heart Month. It will also be the 10th anniversary of the AHA's Go Red for Women campaign, with National Wear Red Day happening Friday.
In addition to bringing awareness to heart-healthy goals, American Hearth Month serves as a reminder that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and more deadly than all forms of cancer.
Stories like Cox's prove that women really do have heart attacks and that their symptoms are so easy to write off as something else, said Toni McGee, director of Go Red for Women.
So many women think they've strained a muscle or exercised too hard, or that they're coming down with the flu, she said.
"We have to learn the symptoms and be willing to listen to our bodies," McGee said.
Paying attention counts
Before her heart attack, Cox considered herself healthy and had no reason to believe otherwise.
She always maintained regular checkups, knew her cholesterol levels and blood pressure were low.
She even lost a "significant amount" of weight in 2007 and has since kept it off.
In November 2011, her oldest son, who was 13 at the time, became interested in running a 5k she was promoting as a fundraiser for Parkside Psychiatric Hospital, where she works as a community liaison.
At 40, she began training for the run, mostly walking, then worked her way up to a run/walk routine by the time of the run with her son in March 2012.
They completed their next run in early April 2012 and joined the Cherokee Nation Wings program, actively training three to four times each week to prepare for the next run.
On top of all this, Cox had also been dancing since September 2009. After a divorce, she sought a social outlet and found a great group of friends at TCWDA.
"I had a steady dance partner and would dance three to four times a week for anywhere from three to five hours at a time," she said. "Seemed like all this activity was a great way to meet people and stay active."
The night of her heart attack, Cox was dancing with Serge Novovich when she started having pain in her arms.
Novovich, whose mother had a heart attack, realized what was going on.
"I had my suspicions, but I didn't want to alarm her," he said. Cox couldn't lift her arms and, when she sat down, the arm pain worsened.
"She asked me to pick up her purse, but she had trouble holding it," Novovich said. "That's when I knew that she needed to go to the hospital."
They called off the dance, and Novovich drove her to the hospital.
At first, Cox thought it was an anxiety attack, even though she wasn't feeling stressed. But on the way to the hospital, she became weaker, and it was harder to breathe.
Upon arrival at Saint Francis Hospital South, she told hospital staff she was weak and having trouble breathing.
"They took me right in and hooked up the EKG," she said. "As you can imagine, the nurses got quite excited at this point and things started moving very fast."
An IV was started, and they gave her aspirin.
An ER physician caught Cox's attention when he explained she was in good physical condition, young and, despite all that, having a heart attack.
"I remember a discussion about giving me nitroglycerine, but he decided against it because of concern about my blood pressure already being low," she said.
After she was stabilized, Cox was moved to the main campus of Saint Francis and, that night, had a stent put in.
Later, she'd learn she was 99 percent blocked. She stayed in the hospital five days.
"I felt great the minute the stent was put in," said Cox, who remembered feeling frustration at having to lie still for four hours after the procedure to make sure the artery where the catheter had been inserted did not bleed.
At her age, and her devotion to nutrition and activity, many of her friends and family were "shocked" by the heart attack.
"It was said many times, 'Of all the people in class, you were not the one I figured for a heart attack,' " Cox said.
Given that her cholesterol and blood pressure were low, her diet was good and she didn't smoke, she didn't have to make many life changes following her heart attack.
"I will admit to the possibility of stress being a contributing factor in my case," Cox said. As a single mom with a full-time job, "life would often get in the way, and I would put the needs of others before myself, cutting down on exercise routines and not getting enough sleep."
Since the heart attack, she's learned to take more time for herself and make herself a priority.
"I also take more time to play with kids or have dinner with friends," Cox said.
Also, taking the time to talk and connect with others can be a very effective stress reducer.
"Who cares if the dishes get done?" she said.
She reminds others to watch not only their nutrition and physical activities, but also their stress levels.
"Of course, I have a whole group of people watching me and letting me know when I'm not sleeping enough or need to stay calm and not get so worked up over life events," she said.
Otherwise, she's back to doing everything she was before last April. Normal dancing and running routines resumed about six weeks after the attack.
She pays more attention to food labels now, specifically sodium levels and cholesterol.
"I would not call it difficult," she said. "I consider these changes worthwhile considering how close I was to not being here to see my kids grow up."
Now, she focuses on spending more time with her family and taking better care of herself so she can take better care of them. Sometimes, that means saying no to an extra project or fun event.
It also means speaking up so people can learn from her experience -- though she was initially hesitant to do so.
"I was concerned about all sorts of possible ramifications," Cox said.
But one day, while out marketing for Parkside, she spoke with an elementary school counselor she'd had met the year before. They were chatting about nutrition and running when Cox mentioned her heart attack.
"The counselor explained how lucky I was my friend and the ER staff recognized the symptoms and responded so fast," she said. Then, the counselor shared a story about the mother of a couple of her past students -- only 37 years old with some of the same symptoms Cox exhibited.
"The story goes, she reported arms hurting, feeling weak, could not swallow very well and was vomiting," Cox said. The ER was busy, and the staff didn't immediately recognize the symptoms.
The young mother died of a heart attack that day.
"This hit really close to home," Cox said. "How easily that could have been me. If I had been home instead of dance class, I would have been home alone with three kids. I would have gone to bed and probably not have gotten back up."
Now, she tells her story gladly so people can watch for the wide array of heart attack symptoms -- and take them seriously.
"Women, especially mothers, tend to put their needs on the back burner in efforts to take care of others," she said.
In a way, she's an ambassador for heart health, which is why she'll be sporting red on Wear Red Friday.
"I'm thinking about the sexy new pair of red boots I bought," she said. "I'm young and healthy, might as well make a statement."
Heart attack signs in women
If you have any of the following signs, don't wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 911, and get to a hospital right away.
--Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
--Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
--Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
--Other signs, such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
--As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
For more, visit tulsaworld.com/americanheart
National Wear Red Day
Friday is Wear Red Day, as well as the 10th anniversary of the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign.
Go Red For Women encourages awareness of the issue of women and heart disease, and also action to save more lives.
Whereas the anniversary is a celebration of the many lives saved because of Go Red, it's also a way to recognize that "we have a long way to go for a cure," said Toni McGee, director of Go Red for Women. "So we need more research, more education and more advocacy."
Local Go Red for Women supporters are encouraging all Tulsans to wear red on Friday to show support and increase awareness for the cause. They are hoping individuals wear it, as well as businesses to encourage employees to wear it, or perhaps decorate store fronts and offices -- or, in the case of retailers, offer "red specials" to boost awareness of heart disease.
For more, including how you can participate, visit tulsaworld.com/americanheart.
Jason Ashley Wright 918-581-8483
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