What Dad Didn't Know Best: Heart Attack Signs

Dr. Besser's father suffered a heart attack and had ignored every symptom.

ByABC News
April 19, 2012, 3:51 PM

April 19, 2012 -- It's the phone call you never want to receive.

"Hi, it's mom. We're at the hospital. They are admitting Dad. Give us a call."

My dad is a doctor. He is one of the big reasons I went into medicine. Seeing the impact he had on people's lives every day was inspiring. My mind was racing through the possibilities. I'm fortunate in that I come from healthy stock. Neither of my parents has ever had a serious illness. Their parents all lived to old age with their minds and bodies in great shape.

I called her back immediately. Dad was being admitted to the hospital because they thought he may have had a heart attack. Sometimes, it's obvious. With a massive heart attack you may lose consciousness and your heart may stop. With a small heart attack, they need to do multiple blood tests over time to see if there has been damage to heart muscle; that defines a heart attack.

My dad having a heart attack? How could that be? My dad was more active than I am. My parents are in their 80's but play tennis several times a week, ride their bikes every day, and swim. He'd never mentioned that he had chest pain or heart troubles.

Turns out he did have a heart attack but he had ignored every symptom. When he finally thought it was his heart, he waited hours before getting help. He did everything wrong. He doesn't want you to make the same mistakes.

Here are some of his signs that you should not ignore.
1. Heartburn - My father had been having heartburn for the past couple of months. It wasn't relieved by an antacid. This was new for him. If you have new onset heartburn, get it checked out.

2. Poor sleep – sleep disturbance can be the presentation of a number of medical problems. If your heart isn't working well, lying down can make it harder to breath but sometimes, all you'll see is a problem sleeping. My father attributed his problem sleeping to a new bed. If you are having trouble sleeping for the first time, get it checked out.

3. Trouble climbing steps - This is a classic sign of heart trouble. My mom could go up two flights of stairs without a problem. My dad was short of breath after even one flight. He attributed it to aging. Don't do that!

And while my dad didn't have pain, remember that the pain with a heart attack can vary from crushing pain in the chest to simple discomfort in your neck and jaw.

When my dad finally thought that he might be having a heart attack. He proceeded to make even more mistakes. He had my mom drive him to the hospital! He didn't take the aspirin that was in the emergency pill case on his key chain. And rather than going to the nearest hospital, he went to a hospital further away that he liked more. Thankfully, despite his mistakes, the cardiologists at Sarasota Memorial Hospital were able to open up his blocked arteries (one was 95 percent blocked), and within days he was back to playing tennis.

I feel so lucky that my dad dodged a bullet here. He wants to make sure you do all you can to increase your chances of making it through a heart attack. If you think you or someone you are with is having a heart attack time really matters.
Here's what you should do, according to Mayoclinic.com:

1. Call 911. Emergency responders will start treatment on the way to the hospital. For the best outcome, you should be at the hospital within one hour of a heart attack. Nearly half don't get there until four hours afterward because they ignore the signs.

2. Chew and swallow an aspirin. Aspirin can cut down on clot formation. With a heart attack, the usual cause is a blood clot forming in one of the arteries supplying your heart muscle.

3. Take nitroglycerin if it has been prescribed by your doctor. Don't take it if it wasn't prescribed for you.

4. Begin CPR if the person having the heart attack is unconscious. New CPR guidelines call for skipping the mouth-to-mouth and just doing chest compressions. Remember to call 911 first so they can be on their way.