A heart attack can come on when you least expect it and completely throw you for a loop—whether you know you’re at risk of heart disease or not. “I was in shock … I’m still shocked. I thought I was a healthy individual,” says heart attack survivor Yesenia Araujo.
Symptoms of a heart attack—chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue—can closely resemble those of non-heart related conditions. So people brush them off, thinking it’s not urgent, when in fact, it could be a matter of life or death. (Here’s how to tell if your chest aches spell heart trouble.)
And remember: You’re never too young or too fit to have a heart attack. (Take it from fitness guru and heart attack survivor Bob Harper.) That’s why it’s critical to know your heart disease risk factors, live a heart-healthy lifestyle, and get certain heart-health markers checked, like blood pressure and cholesterol, so you can stop heart disease—and a heart attack—before it’s too late.
Here are four real life heart attack experiences—all from survivors who were taken by complete surprise.
The Unexpected Heart Attack
“We had just gotten to California on vacation. My sister and I went out, we were walking around doing some sightseeing and I started getting chest pressure, which I’ve never had before. The chest pressure got more significant; I started getting pain or numbness radiating down my left arm, and a little bit of trouble breathing. So I had told my husband. I didn’t realize but he had gone and called 911.
“It was hard to process the news. I didn’t have the typical risk factors, I hadn’t had any prior symptoms, I was 46 at the time. It took me a long time to adjust. Every day I just would cry. The doctor said it was like post traumatic stress disorder, cause it was such a shock.”
—Dawn Platt, heart attack survivor
The Marathon Runner Heart Attack
“I was training for the Philadelphia Marathon in 2013, which at that point was either my 9th or 10th marathon. I’d been running basically since the 1980s and not a hint of any issues. About 5 or 6 weeks after the marathon, I started to get a little bit of mild pressure [in my chest]. It was so mild I thought that I just strained something at the gym, but it happened three days in a row. Didn’t think much of it but on the fourth day it happened the same time into each of my runs, maybe 10 or 12 minutes into the run. This time it was a little different and it actually radiated a little down the side of my arm.
“When I got out of the angiogram test they told me I needed open heart surgery as soon as possible. I had four major blockages, and after speaking to a good friend who’s a cardiologist he said, you’re not in imminent danger, but you gotta get on this very fast. So I listened to people a lot smarter than I am and I had the surgery.”
—Sammy Rabin, heart attack survivor
The Silent Heart Attack
“I didn’t know I’d had a heart attack. I had nasal surgery and about a week after I started to get a severe pain in my chest, which I thought could be anything to do with the surgery. So I tried to walk it off, or you know, tried to do whatever I could, but didn’t know what it was. So when I got to the point where it began to concern me, that’s when I went back to see my cardiologist.”
—Shaun Clancy, heart attack survivor
The Disguised Heart Attack
“I have asthma, so when I went to the hospital, I automatically thought that I couldn’t breathe and it was an asthma attack. They were like, ‘OK, here’s your medication,’ and they sent me on my way, but I didn’t get any better. A week later it happened again, and what I mean [when I say] it happened again, it feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest.
“I was in shock … I’m still shocked. I thought I was a healthy individual. Sometimes I didn’t eat right, but I didn’t think that I was at the age that I was at to have a heart attack.”
—Yesenia Araujo, heart attack survivor
Have you survived a heart attack too? Here’s a cardiologist’s most important advice after a heart attack.