“Don’t ignore your symptoms,” heart attack survivor warns

1 pic Leo Fleck - Mary Shupe
Mary Shupe with colleague and friend Leo Fleck

[Allina Health Newsroom, December 15, 2023] “Who knows if I’d be living if I didn’t get the care in time,” ponders Leo Fleck, lead engineer in Plant Operations at New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC).

Fleck wasn’t feeling quite like himself during a typical shift at NUMC. He was feeling unusually tired while salting the hospital’s sidewalks that cold, drizzly morning. He went about his day, blaming his fatigue and mood on the dreary weather. As he moved to the next project on his list, he felt dizzy, short of breath and off balance. Mary Shupe, a nurse manager in the mental health department, was in the right place at the right time and noticed her colleague’s discomfort. 

“As I was talking to her, I wasn’t my usual chipper self,” admits Fleck. “I told her that I was feeling a little tight across the chest, nauseated and really warm.” Recognizing the symptoms could be lesser-known signs of a heart attack, Shupe immediately went into nurse mode and insisted Fleck head to the emergency department for evaluation. Emergency department staff jumped into action upon hearing of Fleck’s chest pain and began connecting him to monitors and running tests.

“They were so quick about everything as soon as I went in,” he remembers. Once Fleck’s heart attack was confirmed, an ambulance took him to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where he had an angioplasty to place three stents in his arteries.

Fleck hopes others will learn from his experience. “Don’t ignore symptoms,” he advises. “If it wasn’t for Mary Shupe, I would’ve just ignored it, thinking it was just a cold rainy day.”

Fleck has made a full recovery and  and is paying closer attention to how he feels. “I take six different pills now, and keep in touch with cardiac rehab,” he says. “If I feel like I’m short of breath, I get my blood pressure taken, and I monitor it myself and take my meds.”

Not the same symptoms

Bottom line: People experience heart attacks differently.

“The classic description that it feels like an elephant sitting on your chest may be true for some people, but not all,” says Dr. Michael Miedema, director of Cardiovascular Prevention with Allina Health Minneapolis Heart Institute.

“While some feel like a belt is tightening around their chest, others have said it’s a burning sensation. It’s important to know that rarely do people have focal pain, it’s normally an overall chest discomfort,” he explains. Seconds count when it comes to heart attack symptoms. If you begin feeling a new, acute chest discomfort, get it checked immediately at the nearest emergency department or call 911.

“Time is muscle, meaning the longer you wait to receive care, the more damage will be done to your heart, and the sooner you receive care, the better your outcome,” explains Miedema. “Removing a blockage needs to be done as quickly as possible to return blood flow to the impacted area of the heart.”

Prevention is key

“I encourage people to take steps like lowering their blood pressure and cholesterol in order to reduce their risk of a cardiac event,” said Miedema. “It’s helpful to be aware of your risk factor profile such as tobacco use, cholesterol, blood pressure and family history. Your biggest risk factor is age,” says Miedema.

In addition, knowing the physical condition of your heart could save your life. According to Miedema, most people who die from a heart attack had no previous symptoms.

“The best test for risk assessment is a cardiac calcium score or Heart Scan. That score can help you and your doctor determine whether you’d benefit from medications, lifestyle changes or other medical interventions.” says Miedema.

During the scan, you simply lay on your back and hold your breath for about 30 seconds while a CT scanner slides over your chest. No intravenous contrast or prep work necessary. The scan takes pictures of your heart's arteries that are reviewed by a radiologist, and a report is given to you and your physician. Once this information is known, personalized heart attack prevention can be discussed with your primary care provider.

You should consider a Heart Scan if you are older than 35, with one or more of the following cardiovascular risk factors:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • History of smoking
  • Family history of heart disease

Posted on December 15, 2023 in Heart/CardiovascularHeart of New Ulm

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