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/ Source: TODAY
By Drew Weisholtz

Susan Lucci is opening up about the emergency heart surgery she had last fall that may very well have saved her life.

The longtime “All My Children” star tells People magazine that she experienced shortness of breath three times last fall. She brushed off the first two instances, but the third time took place while she was shopping in Manhasset, New York and was so severe that she said, “It felt like an elephant pressing down on my chest.”

Lucci was whisked to an emergency room, where a CT scan revealed she was having a heart attack, often referred to as a “widowmaker.” There was a 90 percent blockage in her heart’s main artery and a 70 percent blockage in another area, as well.

“Ninety percent blockage — I was shocked,” Lucci says. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

Her cardiologist, Holly Andersen, echoed that sentiment. “Had she gone home, that 90 percent blockage could have become 100 percent and she could have suffered a significant heart attack or even sudden death," she told People.

At the hospital, Lucci had a pair of stents put into her arteries to increase blood flow back to the heart.

The procedure worked wonders for the Emmy Award-winning actress. “She has no damage," Dr. Richard Shlofmitz, who performed the surgery, told People. "Her heart is pumping as good as when she was born.”

Lucci, 72, is now using her experience to educate others, which is particularly timely since February is American Heart Health Month. “I’m not a nurse or anyone who can help in any real way,” she says. “This is the way I can help. I can tell my story. Everyone’s symptoms are different but I felt compelled to share mine. Even if it’s one person I help. That is someone’s life.”

The actress, who follows a Mediterranean diet to stay healthy, wants women to know they can have heart attacks, even though it may not be one of the health risks that come to mind for them.

“As a woman you think about breast cancer, not a heart attack,” Lucci says. “Every EKG I had was great. My blood pressure was on the lower end of normal.”

Lucci was susceptible to a heart attack because heart disease runs in her family. “Her risk was due to her father’s arteriosclerosis, a condition that causes plaque buildup, which can cause blockage and hardening (or calcification) of the arteries,” Andersen told People.

Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, founder of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, says Lucci is a great example of a person who may not be at risk, but could still have heart problems.

"She’s a petite woman who looks very healthy and one lesson coming out of that is heart disease really doesn’t care what you wear and how you wear it. It can sneak up on you," she tells TODAY.

Lucci has now signed on to serve as a spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. The movement works to raise awareness about heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.

Hayes, who emphasizes knowing the symptoms of heart disease and keeping tabs of your family history, thinks it's great that Lucci has gotten involved.

"There aren’t a lot of famous women who have come out to talk about their heart disease and obviously there are a lot of famous women who have heart disease. So hats off to her," she said.

Hayes believes Lucci's words can resonate with others.

"'I lived a healthy lifestyle, so if you get those symptoms, you pay attention.’ Those are great messages that she can deliver," she said.

Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have had no previous symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even without symptoms, women can still be at risk for heart disease.

Symptoms are not always obvious but can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Changes in ability to exercise
  • Changes in ability to breath
  • Fatigue

“We often put ourselves on the back burner,” Lucci says. “But if your body is telling you something, [you] need to pay attention.”