Rosie O'Donnell Heart Attack: Women Are 'Queens of Denial'

Women have illusive heart attack symptoms and often too afraid to go to ER.

ByABC News
August 21, 2012, 10:26 AM

Aug. 21, 2012— -- A heart-attack surviving cardiologist says that comedian Rosie O'Donnell is lucky to be alive today, after she delayed seeking help for an impending heart attack, ignoring flu-like symptoms before seeing a doctor.

O'Donnell reported that she had suffered what her doctors called the "widow maker," a 99 percent blockage of the left descending artery that feeds the heart.

"The first thing we women do is become stupid," said Dr. Kathleen McNicholas, a former heart surgeon and medical director of performance improvement at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. "She could have died. Sudden death in women is a reasonable presentation."

The former talk-show host, 50, wrote on "Rosie Blog," that last week she had helped an "enormous" woman out of a car: "A few hours later my body hurt, I had an ache in my chest both my arms were sore, everything felt bruised."

Two-thirds of women and one-third of doctors don't recognize the symptoms of heart attack in females, McNicholas said.

"These symptoms are often more subtle than the classic 'elephant sitting on your chest,'" she said. "The universal sign of a heart attack, clutching your chest, often doesn't apply to women."

O'Donnell likely had ischemia, or a "heart cramp," McNicholas said. "We can get through heart cramps, but she could have gone on to total occlusion," or obstruction.

But she gives the comedian a pat on the back for taking aspirin, a move that might have saved her life.

McNicholas, 64, knows all too well how hesitant women are to believe they are having a heart attack. She had one herself 10 years ago, undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery to repair blockages in her arteries.

Like O'Donnell, she delayed getting help for weeks, continuing to perform heart surgery, but feeling exhausted and carrying a "sense of dread."

"It's very typical of women," she said. "The symptoms are not quite as classic and we really don't want to believe it. We are queens of denial.

"And when you don't have a good story [the piercing elephant on the chest pain], you really don't want to go to the cardiologist and waste his time. ... You are just so tired and dragging yourself around and think you have the flu."

McNicholas said her doctor was just as bad. "I couldn't convince my cardiologist, who could have turned around and convinced me," she said

"We just suck it up."