Stony Brook Medicine Health News
Widow Maker Heart Attack

Surviving a Widow Maker Heart Attack

Retired social worker, Jodi Kennedy, suffered a “widow maker” heart attack at age 64. Occurring when a major artery in the heart is blocked, the widow maker is all too often fatal. 

Two weeks earlier, on a routine neighborhood walk, Jodi had experienced a burning sensation at the base of her throat. While it got her attention, the tingly feeling wasn’t painful and quickly passed. Jodi figured it was indigestion and shrugged it off. It turns out, Jodi has a genetic condition that causes high cholesterol, which would cause her life-threatening widow maker heart attack.

With immediate care by the cardiology team at Stony Brook Medicine, Jodi’s life was saved. Her experience reminds us to take symptoms seriously and be aware of your risk factors for heart disease.

Jodi’s Story

Burning Sensation and Feeling “Off”

“Dr. Chen explained that I have the genetic condition that causes high cholesterol,” says Jodi. 

“On Monday night, August 17th, I’d uneventfully gone to bed,” says Jodi. “I woke up during the night feeling a bit ‘off’ and the burning sensation at the back of my throat was back — something just wasn’t right — but I fell back asleep again.”

The next morning, about to have coffee with her husband, Matthew, the burning sensation along with the ‘off’ feeling from the night before, returned. But again, the sensations passed.

Twenty minutes later, however, Jodi’s symptoms reappeared. And this time, they were not going to be shrugged off.

“I was gripped by a sharp pain radiating from my neck all the way down through my left arm,” Jodi said. “The stinging at the bottom of my throat came back and I began vomiting and sweating heavily. At that point, I called out to Matthew, ‘Something is wrong. Dial 9-1-1. I think I’m having a heart attack!’”

The Stony Brook Team

Events now moved in rapid succession. The ambulance showed up within minutes and transported Jodi to the Emergency Department (ED) of Stony Brook University Hospital.  Arriving at the ED, a team of heart specialists led by On Chen, MD, an interventional cardiologist and Director of Stony Brook’s Advanced Center for Lipid (Cholesterol) Disorders, was waiting for Jodi.

“There was what looked like a huge semicircle of maybe a dozen doctors and nurses rushing over to me and I thought, ‘My God, how lucky I am to be here at Stony Brook!’” recalls Jodi.

Dr. Chen and his team, collaborating at full speed, rushed Jodi into the Cardiac Catheterization (Cath) Lab where the full spectrum of cardiovascular diagnostic and treatment procedures are performed.

It Was a Widow Maker

There, doctors discovered that Jodi’s left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery — the one that supplies most of the blood to the heart — was 95% blocked. The survival rate is very low for patients experiencing this type of heart attack, which is why it has come to be known as the widow maker heart attack.

“Dr. Chen was straight and to the point,” says Jodi. “He told me I was indeed having a massive heart attack and they had to work fast to save my life.” “I felt fine after the procedure,” smiles Jodi. “Once the blockage was gone, I felt immediate relief — completely normal.”

Only 45 minutes elapsed from the time Jodi arrived at the ED until she was diagnosed and treated. She was quickly settled into the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) where her vital signs were closely observed via telemetry (high-tech monitoring). Jodi arrived at Stony Brook on Tuesday and was home again on Thursday.

“Jodi is extremely fortunate that she did not have an adverse outcome,” Dr. Chen explained. “For every minute a blockage in an artery stops blood flow, more of the heart muscle dies. If we open the artery right away heart muscle damage can be minimal and most patients can go back to their regular lives.”

Connecting the Cholesterol Dots

It was at this time that Jodi first heard the words familial hypercholesterolemia or, more simply, FH, a genetic disorder that results in a dangerous buildup of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Included in the more than 70 million Americans for whom abnormal cholesterol levels are a key risk factor for heart disease, nearly one in 250 has FH — 90 percent of whom are undiagnosed.

“Dr. Chen explained that I have the genetic condition that causes high cholesterol,” says Jodi. “The thing is, I always knew that heart disease ran in my family…my father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather all died of heart attacks by the time they were just 51- or 52-years-old. But, in truth, I thought it was only the men who were affected.

“Importantly, too, despite being aware for years that my cholesterol levels were high, my doctor had never made a big deal of it, so I had pretty much just pooh-poohed it.”

Jodi advises, “Watch your cholesterol; if you smoke, quit; and, if you are overweight, lose the pounds. And learn your genetic history”

A Wakeup Call

Jodi considers her heart attack to have been a wakeup call. “Believe me, there’s nothing like learning that you came this close to dying to motivate you to make some changes,” she said. “Working with Dr. Chen, I have learned how to effectively manage my cholesterol through drugs that include statins and a new state-of-the-art class of medication called a PCSK9 inhibitor (Repatha).”

“I also walk as often as I can, get my blood checked regularly and follow a diet that features mostly fruit, vegetables, healthy fats and lean meats and seafood,” Jodi explained.

At her most recent checkup, Jodi learned that her cholesterol levels went from a high of 300, down to 134. Her LDL cholesterol levels dropping down to 39 — the best they have ever been. “I was so happy to hear this news that I almost cried in the doctor’s office,” Jodi recalled. “Frankly, I was amazed. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.”

Jodi has become a staunch advocate for heart health and is especially motivated to teach women that the “just not feeling right” symptoms need to be taken seriously.

With a Grateful Heart 

“I might not be here today if I hadn’t gotten to Stony Brook Hospital immediately,” Jodi shared.

“I’m so grateful for Dr. Chen — he saved my life. But everyone at Stony Brook was kind and caring and worked as a team to save me. It is with a grateful heart that I say, thank you for all you do, to each and every one of them.”

What is a Widow Maker Heart Attack?

A widow maker heart attack involves a dangerous complete blockage of a major artery that supplies blood to the front and bottom parts of the heart. When it’s completely blocked, it can cause extensive damage.

A widow maker heart attack accounts for up to 35% of all heart attack cases. Symptoms are generally the same as a normal heart attack and may include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Upper body pain (impacting neck, jaw, arms, shoulders and back)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain radiating down the arm
  • Weakness and tiredness
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Upset stomach

A widow maker requires immediate emergency medical care to clear the blockage and restore blood flow. This is done either with clot-busting drugs or surgery like angioplasty with stenting.

Preventive steps include managing heart disease risk factors through lifestyle and medications, if needed. Immediate treatment of all heart attack symptoms is critical for survival.

This article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature. Always consult your healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance and treatment.