Mother Uses Personal Heart Attack Experience to Help Save Lives

ANN ARBOR, Michigan  --  Despite heart disease being the number one killer of women in the United States, many people think a heart attack is not something they'll ever experience.

One young mother nearly died from a heart attack after initially being misdiagnosed. Since February is American Heart Month, Doctor Frank McGeorge talked to Courtney Alexander about the ways in which she hopes the story of her close call can help save lives.

It all started after a day of skiing.

"I had this severe back pain that came out of the blue right between my shoulder blades to the point where it was even hard to stand up. I had pain going down my arms into my hands," said Courtney. She went to the emergency room, where she said doctors "ran some musculoskeletal tests and said, 'well it could be your heart, but you're young, you don't have any risk factors.'"

Courtney was only 33 years old with no family history of heart disease. A former college athlete, she was in great shape and even still played hockey. Nevertheless, she had a heart attack.

"Twenty minutes after I got discharged, I went into full cardiac arrest at my neighbor's house. The person who witnessed it called for help, started CPR immediately, police were first on the scene, they had an AED--automatic external defibrillator--in the back of their car."

Doctors at the University of Michigan discovered Courtney had suffered a type of heart attack called SCAD--Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. The artery suddenly begins to tear, blocking blood flow to the heart, for reasons that are not clear.

"My kids were 6, 4, and 2. So I cant imagine them having to grow up without a mom and I will always be appreciative to the people who acted fast," said Courtney.

SCAD often strikes young, healthy women, and up to 30% of cases occur in women who have recently had a baby. Symptoms can include chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, pain in the arms, back, neck, or jaw, nausea, lightheadedness, or sweating.

"If I would have known that, I might have been able to express myself better in the emergency room and better able to say "hey, I think this possibly could be a heart thing going on.'"

Courtney has become an advocate for hands-only CPR and AEDs.

"We're working really hard right now to really increase the survival rate because it can be done and it deserves to be done," she said.

SCAD is generally treated with medication and lifestyle changes.

Courtney now has an implanted defibrillator in her chest just in case it she is affected again in the future.