Learning to listen
Heart attack survivor Veronica Sanchez
Veronica Sanchez thought she knew the signs of a heart attack from the movies she’d seen — chest pain and numbness in the left arm. So when she felt nauseated and dizzy, she dismissed those feelings. "I thought it was something I ate," she said.
Early the next morning, the 52-year-old Houston woman awoke feeling an urgency to use the bathroom—but found she couldn’t get out of bed.
"It was like someone was pushing down on my chest," she said.
Unable to walk, she crawled to the bathroom. Afterwards she rested on her couch. "I thought the pain in my chest was heartburn," she said. Then, in a few minutes, her left arm started to feel heavy, and she needed to urinate again.
When her husband, Jose Henriquez, woke up, he urged her to go to the ER. She protested, arguing that she’d see her doctor later that day for her annual physical. But Jose persisted and eventually convinced her.
By the time she arrived at the ER, she was hunched over and "my arm felt like it weighed a thousand pounds."
"That’s when they told me I was having a heart attack," Veronica said. But she doubted that diagnosis because she didn’t know that men’s and women’s heart attack symptoms often differ. "I was having symptoms more common for a woman than a man."
Tests showed she’d actually had two heart attacks, including one the prior day when she was feeling dizzy and nauseated. That’s when Veronica recalled she’d also had swelling in her ankles and blurred vision a couple weeks earlier. Those were signs that her heart was straining, her blood pressure had increased and she had poor circulation.
Veronica had several blockages in coronary arteries that required a triple bypass to correct.
"The whole thing left me perplexed because I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten to that point in my health," she said.
During three months in cardiac rehab, Veronica learned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle; she also learned about the role family history can play in cardiovascular disease. She started asking questions and discovered that she had a strong history of heart disease on both sides of her family.
"My doctor told me it wasn’t a question of if I’d have a heart attack but when," she said.
After her heart attack, Veronica got her whole family—including her four grown children and their families—involved in making healthy changes. Family favorites, like tacos, got a makeover: "We use lettuce leaves instead of a crispy corn tortilla, so you still have that crunch without having something fried," Veronica said. Other favorites that were fried are now baked. She is also doing cardio as well as walking and doing strength exercises. "I’ve lost 18 pounds," she said.
Veronica said having her heart attacks changed her perspective on how she handled her health. Now she encourages women to make their health a priority. "Women tend to put everything else first," she said. "Sometimes it takes our bodies having to go through a major health event to get our attention."
"You really have to listen to your body," she said. "This taught me to be more aware and not dismissive of things that were happening. Being aware may just save your life."