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Rosie O'Donnell's Heart Attack: Know Your Symptoms

Taking Aspirin a Good Step, but She Should Have Called 911, Expert Says
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 21, 2012 -- Talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, 50, advised women via her web site on Monday to learn the symptoms of heart attack and heed them after revealing she ignored her own and now feels ''lucky to be here."

O'Donnell suffered what she called a "widow maker" heart attack a week ago, she told fans. She googled ''women's heart attack symptoms'' and, although the list matched hers, simply took an aspirin.

The next day, a cardiologist diagnosed a heart attack. Doctors removed a large blockage from her coronary artery before inserting a stent to keep it open.

Her story is a timely reminder that women's heart attack symptoms are often different than a man's, and that women often wait too long to get emergency help, says Chrisandra Shufelt, MD, associate director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Heart Institute, Los Angeles.

Although chest pain can be a symptom of a heart attack for a woman, often the signs can be more subtle. In O'Donnell's case, she did complain of pain in both arms, which is a typical symptom. But according to the American Heart Association, women may also experience what are called “atypical" symptoms, including:

  • Back, jaw, lower chest, or upper belly pain or discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness

Shufelt, who did not treat O'Donnell, answered questions about women and heart disease and described typical treatments for women who suffer heart attacks.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for U.S. women.

Rosie says on her site that ''it's a miracle'' she is still here. Do you agree?

I wouldn't call it a miracle. She definitely took the right steps to save her life, including the aspirin. Ideally she should have called 911 when she googled that information.

That is the information we need to get out -- that it's OK to call 911. It's important. Even if you are wrong. That delay can cause more damage.

What did the cardiologist likely do when Rosie arrived?

The cardiologist checked her blood pressure, her pulse, performed a physical, listened to her heart, and performed an EKG. That tells us a lot of information -- how the heart is functioning and if a heart attack is going on. He would have diagnosed the heart attack.

They performed an angioplasty [at the hospital] to see if there was any blockage. Once you detect a blockage, it's likely the source of her heart attack. [After clearing the blockage] they open it up with a stent.

Is it likely she had been ignoring symptoms for a while?

A large percentage of women have a set of symptoms up to a month before. Some women have cold flushes or break out in a sweat, a clammy sweat. Shortness of breath is a common symptom. Some women have stabbing pain in their back. So it's important to pay attention.

The classic Hollywood heart attack -- the elephant sitting on your chest, clutching your chest, chest pain -- can happen in a woman, but other symptoms can occur in women more often, such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, overwhelming fatigue, or pain in the back or jaw.

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