In 2015, when Denise Castille experienced swollen feet and then heart palpitations, she visited her doctor and a cardiologist. Both said she was fine. She wasn’t. Soon after, the then 46-year-old had a "widow-maker" heart attack, a term used to refer to a serious heart attack occurring when a major artery in the heart is blocked. It's often called a "widow-maker" because it can be fatal.
Today, Castille is sharing her story to warn others that heart disease can happen at any age.
“My hope is that through my hard story and other people’s hard stories that it raises heart disease awareness,” the now 51-year-old from Dallas told TODAY. “One heart story at a time until we eradicate heart disease.”
Swollen ankles and heart palpitations
When Castille noticed that her feet and ankles were swollen she visited her primary care physician and asked about it. The doctor said that Castille’s weight was likely to blame. She was puzzled: Her weight hadn’t changed during the three years she saw this doctor and the swelling had started out of the blue.
The next symptom Castille experienced was scarier.
“My symptoms morphed into chest pain,” said. “I reached out to some cardiologists. The first office that I called, the office manager, there was so much urgency from her when I told her my symptoms. She said, ‘You have to get into the office.’”
The doctor performed an EKG and a stress test and said Castille didn’t have any blockages or valve problems. While she felt relieved, she soon started experiencing heart palpitations and began tracking all her symptoms in a spreadsheet. When she had a follow-up with the cardiologist, Castille tried giving her spreadsheet to the doctor who gave it back to her.
“She says, ‘No, I don’t need it because there’s nothing wrong with your heart,’” Castille recalled. “I said ‘Well the heart palpitations. I have palpitations all day, every day.’ And she says, ‘Well, it could be stress.’”
So Castille asked if there was something to do to help. And the doctor recommended reducing her stress. Less than three weeks later, Castille had a heart attack while on a business trip in Michigan. When the doctor explained to her how serious it was, she told him she had approached several doctors about her early symptoms and they said she was healthy.
“He was so confused,” she said. “He said, ‘OK, so June 12th or so you were in your doctor's office in Dallas and she said there's nothing wrong with your heart?’ I said ‘Yes.’ … They just walk out scratching their heads because they could not believe that just a short time before I had been told I had 0% blockage.”
The doctor wanted Castille to stay in Michigan for a month and he advised her what she should ask her doctors to help her with when she returned, such as a sleep study and cardiac rehab. Castille also learned what she should do at home, including more exercise and eating a heart healthy diet.
“He was just all in and just him listening and his whole team listening … that is what he did that the other cardiologist did not do,” she said. “I felt like the doctor didn’t have any other patients but me.”
When she returned home, she felt good. About eight months after, she started fainting. She estimates she fainted a half a dozen times a year. When she did it in the emergency room one time, a doctor recommended that she receive a pacemaker to help regulate her heart.
“He said, ‘How many times have you passed out? And your heart rate drops like that?’ I said, ‘This year?’ and he said, ‘Oh my goodness, yes, this year,’” Castille recalled.
Since receiving her pacemaker, Castille has thrived.
“Now I’m really great. No more passing out, no heart issues,” she said.
In addition to starting a nonprofit Fresh Start for Your Heart and hosting a podcast “Healing Hope for Your Heart,” Castille also wrote a book “I Don’t Want to Die like This: A Survivor's Guide to Thriving after a Heart Attack.” She hopes to raise awareness about heart disease and dispel myths. At first, Castille thought she was too young to have a heart attack.
“Folks are getting younger and younger,” she said. “It shows up differently in women.”
According to the American Heart Association, women having heart attacks might feel:
- Upper back pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
- Shortness of breath
- Jaw pain
Castille also hopes people will advocate for their own health, especially if something feels wrong.
“I want to impress upon them the importance of regular checkups and to seek medical attention and second opinions if their body gives them reason to be concerned,” she said. “I know my body. And that’s my dealbreaker — if a doctor doesn’t have the time to answer my questions.”