In 2008, Cheryl Crisman of Morris was having a good year.
She was a healthy 38-year-old and she and her husband had just welcomed a new daughter, who was approaching 5 months that February.
And then she had a heart attack.
Crisman hadn’t been feeling good for a couple of days. She thought she was getting the flu. And on Super Bowl Sunday, when her family was getting ready to attend a party, she got a terrible feeling.
“This feeling of dread came over me — I said I have to go to the emergency room,” she recalled.
Crisman drove herself, thinking she was getting a bad case of the flu and that she would not be at the hospital long. When she got to the emergency room, the doctors did an EKG and the next thing she knew, a nurse was giving her a nitroglycerine pill.
The nurse told her they thought she might be having a heart attack. Crisman called her husband and, the next thing she remembers, was waking up in a cath lab.
Crisman ended up having to be transferred to another hospital and underwent bypass surgery for a heart attack caused by Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection.
With SCAD, an inner layer of a coronary artery splits, according to scadresearch.org. Blood seeps between the artery layers, forms a blockage, and starves the heart muscle. Depending on how fast a diagnoses and treatment can be done, the result of SCAD ranges from chest pain to heart attack to death.
“That feeling of dread is what saved my life,” Crisman said.
Crisman had no risk factors for a heart attack. Her cholesterol was fine, her blood pressure was not high, there was no family history of heart disease, and she was an overall healthy 38-year-old. But that is what makes SCAD uncommon.
“It’s an uncommon cause of a heart attack. We used to think it was very rare, but now we call it uncommon and under recognized,” said Dr. Sharonne Hayes, SCAD research doctor at the Mayo Clinic.
SCAD patients are very different than your standard heart-attack patients. Women make up 70 to 80 percent of those suffering from SCAD, and the average age is 42, but some have been as young as in their late teens. About 30 percent are affected by it around the time they give birth.
The exact cause of this spontaneous artery trauma is not yet known. Some of what they do know is SCAD may result from blood vessel changes, sex hormone changes, blood volume changes, and other changes in women related to pregnancy or menopause.
In both men and women, extreme exertion seems to be involved, according to scadresearch.org. What they have learned in recent years has come from patients like Crisman banding together and asking for help.
After Crisman’s surgery, she couldn’t hold her infant daughter for months because the muscles in her chest were too weak. At the time, she was told she was rare and there were few other SCAD patients out there.
Crisman would search online for other patients and all she could find was autopsy reports.
“I couldn’t find anyone else that survived,” she said. “It played with my head a lot.”
She gave up on searching for others, but on occasion would try again. Almost two years after her heart attack, she found two other survivors on inspire.com, a website that connects people with similar health issues.
“I started to connect through the board and people were joining, two to three a week it seemed,” Crisman said.
Two of the others she connected with attended a heart conference, where they approached Dr. Hayes about what she knew about SCAD. Hayes was familiar, but when she was asked what was being done about it, she didn’t have an answer.
“They said, ‘What if we said we had 40 people ready to take part in something?’” said Crisman.
From there, a SCAD study was started, which Crisman and her fellow survivors are a part of. Mayo now has 210 women who are a part of the study, and 100 others being evaluated for it. Many were found through social media sites created by survivors.
“They found each other online and spurred and support the research. Not just through the fundraiser, but encouraging other patients to participate in the study, raising questions, and being really participatory,” said Hayes.
Through this study they have learned it is much more common than originally thought, once it is looked for. In addition, they know now the standard treatment cardiologists give may not be the answer for SCAD patients.
“The rate of success with stenting is much less in SCAD patients then in standard heart patients,” said Hayes.
The study has also helped them to discover that 15 to 40 percent of SCAD patients also have Fibromuscular Dysplasia. FMD is a condition where at least one of a person’s arteries has an abnormal cluster of cells growing in the artery wall. This cluster causes the artery to narrow, which can cause damage to the organs that receive blood through the narrowed artery, according to mayoclinic.com.
“The diagnoses, treatment, prevention, identification of risk factors — it is all new science,” said Hayes. Every time a woman feels a twinge, they shouldn’t panic that it is SCAD, she said. But you should pay attention to your body.
“These women knew something was really wrong,” said Hayes. “Listen to your body. If something occurs that to you might be a heart attack, immediately get treatment.”
For more information on SCAD or to donate for research visit scadresearch.org.