Heart Attacks: Not Just for Men + What You Need to Know

The recent passing of food writer Julie Powell, the 49-year-old author of the book that inspired the movie, "Julie & Julia," got us thinking about heart disease, the leading cause of death for women in the US and UK! Commonly perceived as a man’s disease, there actually is gender equality––the same number of men and women die of heart disease each year. Research shows that women easily miss the early warning signs and often are misdiagnosed, even when admitted to the hospital!


According to the British Heart Foundation, 35,000 women in the UK are admitted to a hospital every year with a heart attack, yet studies show that women are more likely to be misdiagnosed than men. One study carried out by the University of Leeds examined 600,000 heart attack cases in the UK over a nine-year period. It reported that women who had a heart attack were 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed.


Why are women often misdiagnosed for heart attacks?


Simple reason, thanks to gender bias in medicine, much less is known about women and diseases of any kind because not only have doctors, scientists and researchers historically mostly been men, but most of the cells, animals and humans studied in medical science have also been male. Most of the advances we have seen in medicine have come from the study of male biology, according to Dr. Janine Austin Clayton, an associate director for women’s health research at the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), told the New York Times that the result is: “We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology.”


Hertelier reader, Debra Shinn, recently survived a heart attack, and through the recounting of her experience, we hope you will take to heart the vital life-saving information she shares in herstory.


A Personal Account: Debra Shinn, hotel consultant


The morning sun cast an iridescent spell on the Mingus Mountains in Cornville Arizona, just outside of Sedona. It was dawn and my Shih Tzu, Savannah, was excited about her walk. A pain lay heavy on my chest that morning, but I figured it was my chronic “heartburn”. As we traversed the neighborhood, stopping for the occasional sniff, my chest continued to feel heavier and heavier. But I believed the discomfort was temporary, so when I got back home, I showered, and got ready to go to my part-time sales work at the local Sedona art gallery.


Although I'd recently retired from running luxury hotels and had created a startup hospitality consulting company, not even my 30+ year career at iconic hotels such as Hotel Bel Air, San Ysidro Ranch, Peninsula Beverly Hills, and Wynn Las Vegas, caring for guests that ranged from royalty and CEOs to celebrities and the wealthiest families in the world, could have prepared me for the unimaginable effects of COVID on the protocols of luxury travel. It pushed me over the edge…to the point where I decided to step back from day-to-day operations early, at age 60. It turned out to be a smart move, I was living my retirement dream. My new company was taking off, with clients that included a well-established Los Angeles hotel, a Sedona luxury hotel under development, a boutique Arizona wine tasting room, and a long-standing Sedona Art Gallery. Yes, life was good, but that day I couldn’t shake the strange pains that seemed to surround my chest.

Debra Shinn Hotel Consulting
Debra Shinn and her Shih Tzu, Savannah

So, what does all this background history have to do with my story? Without warning, I had a heart attack that landed me in the ICU for four days and resulted in having four stents placed in my heart valves. I have never smoked, and I worked out, am not overweight, have no diabetes, and ate a healthy diet. Although In hindsight, warnings were there, and I ignored them. Why? Because as a woman working in a field dominated by men, I had resolved long ago, to NEVER show weakness.


I can remember now, sharp pains on the left side of my chest that would come and go, numbness traveling down my left arm, and constant, what I thought was, “heartburn.” So ignored the pain and soldiered on! What I did not know at the time, was that my body was desperately trying to tell me it was struggling. Until one warm summer morning in June, my body screamed at me and shut down.


After my morning walk with Savannah, I shrugged off the serious chest pains and drove to work at the art gallery. Within 10 minutes after arriving, a searing pain shot thru my left arm, I started sweating profusely and my chest grew so heavy and painful, I couldn’t breathe. I had the forethought to punch an extension on the front counter phone and just said “help” and then collapsed onto the floor. The next thing I remember is three paramedics looking down at me and someone yelling, “heart attack!” They lifted me onto a stretcher and headed to the local emergency room. My colleagues looked at me with terror in their eyes, and all I could say was “Don’t tell my Dad”.

Immediately upon arriving at the emergency center, I was hooked up to what I now know, was an EKG. The nurses had trouble getting it to work and I could feel their stress and tension. The next thing I heard was “BLOCKAGE” and I was lifted back onto a stretcher and rushed to a different medical facility in a larger town. I remember looking up in the ambulance, facing the back window, seeing the cars racing by, hearing the sirens blasting, and thinking “what the f*^@!” I heard the EMT say he was administering morphine. The next thing I knew I was in surgery with bright lights and many people looking down at me.


Fast forward to the next four days spent in the ICU. Four stents later, the cardiologist came into my hospital room to explain how to move on with my life, post-heart attack. I had four blocked arteries (between 90% to 99% blocked), one was known as the “widow maker” (left anterior descending artery). The doctor said this meant a life of taking blood thinners and cholesterol medication, as well as some diet restrictions. Well, I thought, the alternative would have been much worse!!!


Looking back, did I have any indication this would happen? Well, if I had paid attention to my family history, yes, the signs were there. My mother died of complications due to a stroke, my father had five-valve bypass surgery, my brother had a blocked artery, and my uncle had a heart attack, yes–– the signs were there, but I thought I was impervious. Did I have high cholesterol counts in the past, yes, but my “good cholesterol” count was high, so I thought it balanced out. And as I mentioned earlier, I did not have diabetes and never smoked, so it NEVER occurred to me that I was a candidate for a heart attack. In hindsight, however, what I DID have was a stressful career as a hotel GM, but I always thought I had it under control. I know now, my brain may have had it under control, but my body did not.


In conclusion, my advice is to pay attention to the signs, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. Your body is trying to tell you something. Even though I led a healthy lifestyle, ate well, worked out, and maintained a healthy weight, I chose to ignore the stress of my career and my family history. Sometimes, things are just pre-determined in your body and there are signs to let you know if you JUST LISTEN!

Heart Attack Warning Signs for Women

Every woman should recognize the signs and symptoms of a heart attack to know when to call for emergency medical assistance. While the classic signs of a heart attack include central chest pain or pressure that radiates to the left arm and jaw, in women, the signs are often less obvious.


Top symptoms during a heart attack for women:

  • shortness of breath

  • back and abdominal pain

  • weakness and fatigue

  • clammy sweat

  • dizziness

  • nausea

In a recent study of 500 women who survived heart attacks, 95 percent of them said they noticed that something wasn't right in the month or so before their heart attacks. The two most common early warning signs were fatigue (71 percent) and disturbed sleep (48 percent). Some women, for example, said they were so tired they couldn't make a bed without resting.


If you feel any of these symptoms, please check with your doctor and if the symptoms are acute, call an ambulance.