The signs of a heart attack can be easily overlooked. Chest pain can be mistaken for heartburn, stress or a muscle pull — all small aches that can be easy to dismiss. For one Cigna employee, the pain was manageable until one night, she found herself in the emergency room facing a diagnosis that had been showing warning signs for a month. She was having a heart attack.
“I was in the best shape of my life,” said Vicki Wheeler, chief operations officer, Accredo® (a Cigna company) and a registered nurse. “I had moved to Florida, so I was outside more often. I was training for a 5K and eating a plant-based diet. I had lost 35 lbs.”
Wheeler, 51, would notice her chest pain more while working out but wrote it off as heartburn. She said the pain was on and off for a month before she experienced her heart attack.
“I didn’t listen to my body after repeated warnings,” said Wheeler, whose heart attack happened on Father’s Day in 2020 (June 21) after playing a round of pickle ball. “I’m a nurse, I know the signs of a cardiac episode but I ignored them. Even when I was having my heart attack and having a hard time catching my breath, I was fighting my husband the whole way to the emergency room. I didn’t think I needed to go.”
Wheeler said they immediately started tests when she arrived at the hospital, confirming that she was indeed having a heart attack. She learned her heart was 95 percent blocked in one artery, and they prepped her for a cardiac stent procedure the next morning.
“It was traumatic, being in the hospital alone in the middle of the pandemic,” said Wheeler. “After three days, I was sent home and started to make serious changes in my lifestyle.”
She said that those changes included committing to 45 minutes of exercise every single day, even if she has to get up at 4 a.m. to do it. Wheeler makes sure to meal prep whole foods on the weekends so she has healthy choices while she’s working during the week, because processed foods like chips and snack bars won’t help her cardiac health. She credits her Cigna case manager for keeping her accountable and helping her stay on track with new healthy habits, as well as coaching her through the anxiety she felt after experiencing the heart attack.
“Women are caregivers. I had a million reasons to take care of everyone else and ignore the signs of my heart attack,” said Wheeler. “I would have made my husband go in to the emergency room the first time he complained of chest pain. But when it came to my own heart health, I didn’t listen to my body.”
Eight months after surgery, Wheeler says she feels great and is healthier than she’s ever been. She’s back to running, playing pickle ball and doing everything she was before her heart attack – except that now she’s paying more attention to her health. And she’s sharing her story to prevent other women from experiencing what she did.
“I know I’m lucky to be alive, and I want to make sure other women know and understand the signs of a heart attack,” said Wheeler. “I put off care, made excuses and it almost cost me my life. I want to make sure other women prioritize themselves like I am now.”
According to the American Heart Association®, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, claiming more women’s lives than all forms of cancer combined. The most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort, but women may also experience shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and back or jaw pain more frequently than men.
Taking care of your health now can help prevent future heart attacks. Here are some ways to protect yourself against heart disease:
- Know your numbers: Start getting screened for cardiovascular disease at the age of 20, and know your numbers – total cholesterol, HDL, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index to better understand your risk for heart attack or stroke.
- Take action: Healthy living can cut your risk of heart disease by as much as 80 percent. Start eating more nutritious food like vegetables and fruits, and take more time to exercise. Both of which not only help prevent heart attacks but can make you feel better too – both physically and mentally.
Heart health can also translate to greater resiliency, read this article to better understand the correlation between preventive care and resilience.