A Rockwall woman is sharing a warning to others after suffering a sudden heart attack.
It's a good reminder for everyone to slow down.
Doctors at Texas Health Resources said they've seen an uptick in heart-related visits to the emergency room. For many, it's because of stress, lack of exercise, and stress snacking all tied to the pandemic.
But Erika Livingston is proof it can really happen to anyone. Five months ago, she almost died of a heart attack at an age she never would’ve expected.
“It’s very enlightening. It was eye-opening for me because I’m 41 and I never ever thought I would expect to have a heart attack," she said.
The scary thing is – she's extremely healthy, works out three times a week, and eats well. While she has an auto-immune disease, she said she's always managed it.
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Looking back, she said there were some warning signs letting her know something was off in the months leading up to the heart attack.
“For the last few months, the first five minutes of my work out I was out of breath. I couldn’t catch my breath and I thought it was really weird,” she said. “I remember back at the end of April, I took a girls trip to Broken Bow and went hiking. And it wasn’t a bad hike, anyone could do it. All of the sudden, I was out of breath.”
She said she later found out from doctors that her main artery was blocked by about 75% so her heart was not getting proper blood flow or oxygen.
“Obviously, we don’t listen to our bodies. I think 41 is still young, you don’t think that maybe something is going on or that it has to do with your heart,” she said.
Livingston admits she was also a workaholic and says the pandemic took its toll on her stress. She also battled COVID-19 in the months prior to her heart attack.
“I drastically changed my life. I could’ve died in one day and not even know it. I’m the type that goes 200 miles per hour,” she said. “I own a hair salon, have a full-time job, and my husband has an air conditioning company. So we’re busy. I’ve changed that. I changed it to where I’m less stressful. I do meditate and work out still.”
She believes all of the stress over the past 18 months was just too much on her body, leading up to that life-changing moment in June.
"It's really scary, I was dead asleep. Dead asleep and 5 a.m., I literally rose from the dead and just woke up. I had a sharp pain in my chest and it was radiating to my back,” Livingston described. "Typically some women will have arm numbness, I did not have that, so just be aware of that."
She said she felt the urge to take a warm bath because she was shivering.
“But I was sweating profusely, that was another big sign. I’ve never sweated like this. I yelled for my husband and told him I don’t feel right,” Livingston said. “Quickly we go to the ER. They do an EKG and right away they told me that I was having a heart attack. I went into shock mode.”
Check-In With Yourself
A study by Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center shows the pandemic is putting more women, specifically young women, at a higher risk for heart disease complications through rising anxiety and depression levels.
Another recent NIH study also determined that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, as the brunt of home life has fallen on them, and the psychosocial impact will inevitably have a physical impact.
This adds onto the already well-known statistic that heart disease and stroke are the top killers of all women.
“Panic attacks can mimic heart attacks. So if you think it’s stress, it could be something more. It’s worth getting checked out,” Livingston said. “Just listen to your body. I had so many people and doctors in the hospital saying I did the right thing by going to the ER, and in my head, I’m thinking do people not go immediately when they feel this bad? And they say no, people just brush it off and go on.”
And it's not just pandemic stress.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, COVID-19 and its symptoms can damage heart muscle and affect heart function.
Of course, pre-existing conditions and autoimmune disorders like Livingston’s has can affect heart function.
“There are people that have pre-existing cardiovascular conditions and then they get COVID, which will make those conditions worse. They’ll come in and have heart failure, heart attacks, blood pressure issues and irregular heartbeats. But the good news is that we haven’t seen a lot of people,” said Dr. Kenneth Saland, an interventional cardiologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. “COVID-19 causing a heart problem in an otherwise healthy person is much less common. It does happen – we have seen some direct effect of COVID on the heart, but the predominant patient we see has heart disease and then they get COVID, and that’s where most of the heart-related issues as far as our practice and hospital experience."
Either way, doctors at Texas Health say no matter your age, the pandemic's additional problems are a reminder for people to check in with their bodies.
“A lot of the healthcare that people would have been participating in, they’re hesitant to visit their primary care doctor or specialist, they kind of put it off. We’re seeing people come in after two years and they haven’t been managing their medical issues like their blood pressure, cholesterol and checking usual things,” said Dr. Saland. “When you’re young, you do feel invincible. You feel like nothing can affect you.”
Livingston said she changed her lifestyle to manage the stress and slow down. She meditates now and also has relied on the cardiac rehab program at Texas Health to slowly get back to the lifestyle she loves without exhausting her heart.
“Now that my heart is open, I have so much more blood flow,” she said. “I have more energy. I used to be cold all the time and now I’m hot. I’m better than before!”
While diet is also important to good heart health at any age, Dr. Saland there’s another simple tip he gives his patients.
"One of the most important things that I preach every day in clinic is to exercise and be active. That is the most important thing that I have seen in my clinic for years,” he said.