Like many women, Jennifer Gaydosh talked herself out of the fact that she was having a heart attack. Researchers say women suffering heart attacks delay seeking treatment at least 37 minutes longer than men. Gaydosh, however, isn’t your typical woman – she’s a cardiac nurse at HealthONE’s Rose Medical Center – and she suffered from an atypical heart attack called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, more commonly known as SCAD.

The then 47-year-old registered nurse, who denied her symptoms for nearly a week, is now raising awareness about the little-known heart condition that could have killed her.

Rose Medical Center nurse, Jennifer Gaydosh Credit: William Widmer for Prevention

She began experiencing nausea, sweating, paleness and left arm pain, which she dismissed as musculoskeletal. “I talked myself out of it. I didn’t want to look stupid,” Gaydosh said.

“I didn’t think it could happen to me. I was too busy to have a heart attack.”

Except she was.

One of the main arteries of her heart had dissected and essentially cut off blood flow to the heart.

“I was having a heart attack, on and off, for about five or six days,” Gaydosh recalls. “If a patient would have come in with my exact symptoms, I would have told them to get their butt to an emergency room immediately.”

What every woman should know about SCAD

Michael Wahl, MD, an interventional cardiologist at the HCA Healthcare affiliate in Denver and Gaydosh’s colleague, explains that SCAD is a sudden tear in the wall of the heart artery. The layers of the artery start to separate and bleed inside the wall of the artery, he says. It can make the artery narrow or close.

Rose Medical Center Cardiologist, Dr. Michael Wahl Credit: William Widmer for Prevention

“SCAD most commonly affects younger and otherwise healthy women under 50 years old,” Dr. Wahl said. “It’s been reported that anywhere from 75-90 percent of patients that present with this condition are females. Men can suffer from it too, but it’s mostly women in their 40s to 50s.”

In an interview with Prevention magazine, Gaydosh explained she had zero risk factors— she exercised regularly, her cholesterol numbers were excellent, her body mass index was low and lean, and she had no family history of cardiac disease.

Don’t deny it

It was the nagging arm pain that prompted Gaydosh to visit her hospital’s emergency room, where routine tests were inconclusive. In the days that followed, her symptoms of nausea, sweating, and shortness of breath led her co-workers to intervene.

Rose Medical Center Director of Cardiovascular Services, Heather Harris, urged her colleague and friend to get an echocardiogram test. Credit: William Widmer for Prevention

“SCAD symptoms aren’t well recognized,” Dr. Wahl explained, “because sometimes it doesn’t show up on certain kinds of tests. It’s very hard to pick up on heart CT scans or on stress tests, for instance. So, doctors have to be very aware and really look for it in order to find it in some cases.”

An echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to produce images of the heart, detected the irregularity in Gaydosh’s heart. Dr. Wahl noted that a confirmed SCAD diagnosis mostly comes by coronary angiography (X-ray imaging to see the heart’s blood vessels) in the heart catheterization lab.

“We knew that Jenn was going to be one of the cases where this was a dangerous finding because it was starting to change the function of her heart,” Dr. Wahl said. “This told us that her heart wasn’t getting enough blood flow or enough oxygen. We immediately took her to the cath lab to figure out diagnosis and treatment, so she didn’t injure more of her heart muscle.”

If the arteries are safe, the preferred treatment method for SCAD is medication – the route that Dr. Wahl took for his cardiac colleague.

SCAD survivor-turned-advocate

Gaydosh has made a complete recovery and is in excellent health, according to Dr. Wahl. Though, she was in excellent health before this diagnosis suddenly happened.

That’s why it’s so important for women ages 40 to 50, and pregnant women and new mothers – another high-risk population susceptible to SCAD – should be educated about this and other unique cardiovascular health issues.

“After diagnosis, people can feel scared and isolated because it happens all of a sudden,” Dr. Wahl said. “Many SCAD patients turn to the online community to make connections with someone like them, where they learn that lots of people recover and do very well.”

“We’re proud that Jenn has been so active to get her story out to the public and give support to other women like her.”

The cardiac nurse embraces her second chance at life. “I’m so much more grateful than I used to be,” Gaydosh said. “When I get on my spin bike and I get my heart up to 150, sometimes I cry because my heart is so strong.”

Choosing to center on what is important, “I’ve changed how I manage stress and I don’t dwell on things,” Gaydosh said.

“You can either be ‘woe is me’ or ‘thank God I’m alive’. I’m really focusing on how I can prevent this from happening to someone else.”

SCAD symptoms can be similar to heart attack symptoms in women. Individuals should seek emergency attention if SCAD-like symptoms present, even if they are not at risk for a heart attack. Symptoms include:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating
  • Pain in neck, back, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain radiating down one or both arms
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea, stomach pain
  • Fatigue

*Not everyone exhibits all of these symptoms. If a person experiences chest discomfort, call 911 immediately.

Jennifer Gaydosh is a cardiovascular registered nurse (CVRN) and Dr. Michael Wahl is an interventional cardiologist. Both are caregivers at Rose Medical Center, an affiliate of HCA Healthcare, located in Denver. Read the entire article in Prevention here to learn more about Jennifer’s SCAD diagnosis.