What causes a sudden heart attack? At 39, mom was 'blindsided' by blocked artery

Jennifer Andrews had just gone to her primary care doctor for her annual checkup and everything looked fine. Then, the heart attack happened.
Jennifer Andrews suffered a heart attack on January 9 at age 39.
Jennifer Andrews suffered a heart attack on January 9 at age 39.Courtesy of Jennifer Andrews
/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

Jennifer Andrews was driving on a New Jersey highway last month when she suddenly suffered a massive heart attack.

As she fell unconscious behind the wheel, her car careened down an embankment and stopped in heavy brush and trees. A Good Samaritan who saw what happened and followed had to resuscitate her three times to get her heart beating normally again.

At 39, Andrews had never experienced any heart issues or symptoms before and was “completely blindsided,” she said.

“It literally came out of nowhere,” Andrews, an executive assistant who lives in borough of Washington, New Jersey, told TODAY. “It’s extremely scary. I feel like this is something that happens to 80-year-old men.”

Andrews was even more stunned since she had just gone to her primary care doctor for her annual checkup just two weeks before the episode. All the bloodwork came back fine, as did checks of her heart rate and blood pressure, she noted. She exercised regularly and led a low-stress life.

The mother of two did have risk factors, including smoking a few cigarettes a day, being overweight and having a family history of heart disease — her father died of heart problems in his mid-50s — but said it never crossed her mind to worry about her heart at her age.

After waking up in the hospital four days after the January 9 accident, Andrews was incredulous when doctors told her she had a 100% blockage in one of her coronary arteries, requiring a stent.

“I didn’t believe them. If it wasn’t for me waking up in the hospital with the tubes in my arm and the oxygen in my nose — and I could tell I had been intubated because my throat was hurting — I would have never believed it,” she said.

Andrews spent seven days in the hospital after her heart attack, some of them in a coma.Courtesy Jennifer Andrews

Know the risk factors and symptoms

It’s possible for people to do everything right and still have heart problems sneak up on them, said Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a cardiologist and founder of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

February is American Heart Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness of heart disease — the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., yet many people still think of it as a “man’s illness.”

The risk goes up as people age, so heart attacks in premenopausal women are not common, but they do happen, Hayes noted. A recent study found heart attacks are on the rise in women between the ages of 35 and 54.

It leads expert to wonder: Are doctors are not paying enough attention to those women’s risk factors, or is the type of heart disease younger women develop fundamentally different than heart disease in the elderly or in men? The answer is probably a combination of both those factors, Hayes said.

Her research interest is spontaneous coronary artery dissection — a tear in a coronary artery wall — which often affects women who are otherwise healthy, with few or no risk factors for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Hayes advised women under 50 who have suffered a heart attack with no risk factors to talk to their doctor about whether they had a SCAD or another heart attack cause not related to plaque buildup.

Hayes didn’t treat Andrews, but said it’s understandable why she would feel blindsided. A typical 39-year-old woman may be more focused on reproductive issues or the risk of breast cancer than her heart health because she probably doesn’t have any friends and family her age who have heart disease, Hayes noted.

The key for everyone is to pay attention to risk factors — including high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, diabetes, excess weight, smoking and a family history of heart disease — and address the ones you can control.

For example, even light smoking — like the three or four cigarettes a day Andrews smoked before her accident — is a compelling risk factor for heart disease, Hayes said.

“But even people who optimally control all the risk factors still could have a heart attack,” Hayes said.

“Recognize it could happen and know what to do if you get the symptoms or somebody around you gets the symptoms.”

Chest pain is still the No. 1 warning sign for both sexes, but women can also experience different symptoms than men, including pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or in the upper back between the shoulder blades.

Andrews, center, shares a happy moment with her daughters Devyn Colon, left, and Taylor Colon. They are all following a healthier diet after Andrews' heart attack.Courtesy Jennifer Andrews

Andrews did have some upper back pain in the weeks leading up to her heart attack, but said that was typical for her and the condition was being treated by a chiropractor.

Since the heart attack, Andrews has quit smoking, is watching her salt, fat and cholesterol intake and feels fine, she said. There are new medications to take and doctors to visit during her follow-up care. The accident left her with bruising from the seat belt, but she’s recovering well.

“It was very eye-opening,” Andrews said about the ordeal, noting she was indebted to everyone who saved her life.

“I feel like 'thank you' isn’t enough. I don’t know what to say for them to understand how grateful I am.”