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Bravo's Captain Sandy recounts heart attack, urges others to 'learn the signs'

Bravo’s fearless Captain Sandy Yawn of “Below Deck Mediterranean” opens up about her heart attack at age 49, and what she wants women to know.
Captain Sandy Yawn offers a calming presence amid the drama of Bravo's "Below Deck Mediterranean."
Captain Sandy Yawn offers a calming presence amid the drama of Bravo's "Below Deck Mediterranean."Laurent Basset / Bravo
/ Source: TODAY

Anyone who's watched just a few minutes of "Below Deck Mediterranean" knows working on a mega yacht comes with its share of stressful, and sometimes life-or-death, moments, but for Captain Sandy Yawn, one of the scariest moments of her life happened a few years ago in a spin class.

At the time, Yawn was 49 years old and nearing her 50th birthday when she started experiencing what she realized were symptoms of a heart attack during a SoulCycle class.

"I felt like I couldn't swallow, and then I felt like, 'This isn't normal,' and I noticed my heart rate wasn't going down — it was going up," she said in an interview with TODAY.

While many realize chest pain is a sign of a heart attack, there are other common symptoms, like changes in how you're able to exercise, that women should be aware of.

"I kept saying, 'I don't want to die. I don't want to die.'"

-Captain Sandy Yawn

Yawn said she only knew the symptoms she was having were indicative of a heart attack because she heard one of her friends, who is a cardiologist, speak about them.

In an effort not to disturb the spin class, Yawn waited and slipped out of the room when the class ended. She called an Uber to take her to the hospital as her left arm started to go numb.

What she wants women to know about heart health

Yawn said one of the things she learned from listening to her friend speak was what to say after arriving at the hospital, since she said panic attacks can be confused for heart attacks.

"You walk up, and you say, 'I'm having a heart attack. I need an EKG now,'" she said.

Yawn learned she had experienced spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which is an unprompted tear in a coronary artery wall. SCAD is rare, but may be more common among postpartum women. Patients tend to be otherwise healthy, frequently with no risk factors for heart disease, the American Heart Association notes.

"I kept saying, 'I don't want to die. I don't want to die,' and I'll never forget, you're supposed to have instant relief if they put a stent in, but they couldn't put a stent in because I had a tear. So I didn't have instant relief. I was in pain. I stayed in the hospital four days," Yawn remembered.

She later learned she had high blood pressure, which she called "a silent killer for women," and had also started taking Adderall two weeks earlier to help her focus. She said those factors combined with "extreme exercise" led to her heart attack.

"Learn the signs. Learn your numbers, your blood pressure. Learn those numbers, and do the self-checks. And if you have a feeling ... and it doesn't feel right, it's off, listen to that, and just go to the hospital," Yawn said, before adding 1 in 3 women die every year of heart disease.

The Bravo star said both her parents, who were smokers, died of heart attacks. Yawn, now 56, said she has always followed a healthy diet. "I eat more oatmeal — anything with a heart on it, I eat it, you know, in the store. If it says 'heart health,' I believe it. ... I eat like that. I don't have high cholesterol, I don't have any blockage in my veins at all."

Yawn added she also doesn't have heart disease and that her "heart is great."

While on board during charter season, she finds time between her captain duties to squeeze in workouts.

In addition to a lot of walking, particularly up and down stairs, she said she has an exercise ball in her room, where she will also do pushups and situps.

"Honestly, you're exhausted at the end of the day," she said. "It is not easy to exercise. A lot of these boats have gyms, if you have the energy to go in one, and swimming — jumping in the water and doing a lap. If it's just 30 minutes a day, I'll do it. I do it in my room, or I go swim."

A new season brings a new crew — and new drama

"Below Deck Mediterranean" is kicking off its sixth season Monday night, and this year, fans can watch the episodes a week early on Peacock.

The first episode is full of drama with the chef which requires the entire crew to step up in a new way as the season's first charter guests board the boat.

"Below Deck Mediterranean" season six chef Mathew Shea gets off to a rocky start — but can he bounce back?Laurent Basset / Bravo

"We're always in crisis mode. ... I loved how the people came together, and I didn't have to ask them — they just helped. ... I love witnessing that," Yawn said.

Without giving away what happened, Yawn said the aftermath resulting from the problem the chef had during that first charter "was terrible."

"The client wasn't happy, rightfully so, but we managed. And, you know, it worked out."

What Yawn loves most about her job is meeting "so many incredible people," including her crew members who hail from all over the world, and learning about their cultures. She also appreciates when someone truly wants to make the maritime industry their career.

As fans know, this is the first season without chief stewardess Hannah Ferrier. New chief stew Katie Flood hits the ground running.

"One of the things that I really liked about Katie is she was stepping right off a boat onto another boat — so she was full charter boat mentality," Yawn said. "And witnessing her, how she handled the first charter for me was like, 'Oh wow, she's actually a really good chief stew.' She does a good job, she's a great bartender."

"Below Deck Mediterranean" stewardesses Lexi Wilson (left) and Courtney Veale (center) appear during season six with their chief stewardess, Katie Flood (right).Laurent Basset / Bravo

"Hannah was done," she added. "She wanted a baby. She's living her dream now."

One familiar face returning for another season is bosun Malia White, who has a confrontation with Yawn in the teaser for the new season.

Yawn described White as "great" and "awesome," and said, "She's on that ladder, and she's getting there," but added things can happen that lead to a clash.

"Sometimes, you do things that piss the captain off, and she pissed me off. So I lose my temper. I'm a human being, and I think people forget that we too have limitations, and we too get angry. And she really made me angry," Yawn said.

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If Yawn ever had the chance to appear on another Bravo show, and she noted her loyalty very clearly lies with "Below Deck Med," she'd choose a franchise known for a different kind of customer service.

"I gotta work, you know, so I'd want to be sales, I guess — 'Million Dollar Listing.'"

"Below Deck Mediterranean" airs Mondays on Bravo at 9 p.m., or stream the episodes one week early with Peacock Premium.

Bravo and Peacock are part of TODAY's parent company, NBCUniversal.