Gabby McManus's Why

In August 2013, Gabby McManus awoke in the middle of the night with severe heartburn and feeling like there was a huge weight on her shoulders.

It was much worse than symptoms she’d experienced the previous few weeks — occasional shortness of breath and mild heartburn, for which she took an aspirin or two.

This time, Gabby, age 46 of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, took four aspirin. She called her husband, Bill, who was out of town, and he urged her to call an ambulance. Instead, she took a shower, got dressed and decided to have her college-age son, Brett Harman, drive her to the nearest hospital, which was 30 minutes away.

“Everything just felt heavy. I felt a little disoriented,” Gabby said. As they drove through rural southern Maryland, a sense of urgency set in. “I said, ‘Hurry!’”

As Gabby made her way into the emergency room, she felt more disoriented.

“As I was walking through the door, I said, ‘I’m not going to make it,’” she recalled.

Gabby collapsed, and medical workers had to shock her heart.

“I just remember waking up screaming that I wanted my mom,” she said. Doctors and nurses explained to her that she’d had a massive heart attack. And it wasn’t over: Over the next several hours, her heart stopped 14 times.

“I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I was dying,” she said.

Fog had grounded the medical helicopter, so doctors gave Gabby a clot-busting drug and transported her by ambulance to a Washington, D.C., hospital an hour’s drive away.

There she was whisked into surgery where a stent was placed in the main artery down the front of her heart, which had been 98 percent blocked. When she awoke in the ICU, she was disoriented and scared.

Gabby had no obvious risk factors before her heart attack. Her blood pressure and cholesterol were normal, and she was active and at a healthy weight. She had annual physicals. However, it was later determined that she suffered from coronary artery disease and that there was a family history of the condition.

When she was released from the hospital after a week, she was afraid to leave the hospital. “I laid in the backseat of our car balled up in the fetal position,” she said. “I had nightmares for months.”

Outpatient physical therapy helped Gabby regain some of her strength and introduced her to other heart patients.

“Everybody’s story is different,” she said. However, a frightening realization was that some of her fellow patients had suffered subsequent heart attacks. She experienced two panic attacks that put her back in the hospital.

For months after her release, she was at a complete loss.

There were so many medications and doctor visits, it was hard to keep everything straight. “I went into total panic if my prescriptions were not called in on time,” she said. “For the next six months I cried at the drop of a hat. No one could give me answers.” She finally met with a psychologist and a psychiatrist to grasp what was happening, that such a traumatic event changes the body’s chemical balance. “I will never really be the person I was prior to my heart attack,” she said. “Once I understood that, I have been able to live and function without the fear of another heart attack.”

Today she remains on several medications and sees a cardiologist every four months. The stent continues to do its job. Gabby doesn’t have quite as much stamina as she once did and has trouble sleeping.

But the most difficult lingering effect of her heart attack has been coping with depression and anxiety.

“People don’t understand the mental state of having a heart attack,” she explained. She went through what she calls the “roller coaster of emotion.”

It took two years to feel normal, and life has changed. “I don’t ignore warning signs or pains anymore. I make sure I see my doctors regularly, and I ask questions,” she said. She hopes other survivors will do the same. “Ask to see the results of your tests; ask for explanations. That is so important.”

It is also important for women to be educated about warning signs for heart attack. “My only warning sign was bad heart burn so I ignored it. I had no idea. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t had my heart attack walking into the ER. I was very lucky. I encourage women to take charge of their health.”

Her why? “The entire time I was going through cardiac arrest I could feel the power of God and my family’s prayers working,” she said. “My faith and my family are the most important things in my life. Without them, I would be nothing.”

Everyone has a reason to live a longer and healthier life.



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