Rosie O'Donnell's Heart Attack a Lesson for Women

TUESDAY, Aug. 21 (HealthDay News) — When Rosie O’Donnell discovered she had suffered a heart attack, the TV personality was as surprised as anyone else because her symptoms weren’t what she associated with a major coronary event.

Instead of crushing pain, often likened to an elephant sitting on your chest, O’Donnell, 50, had much subtler signs. She said on her blog Monday that hours after helping an “enormous” woman get out of a car on Aug. 14 near O’Donnell’s home in Nyack, N.Y., she was bothered by aches and pains in her arms and chest. She also became nauseous, and her skin felt clammy.

While less dramatic than the Hollywood version of a heart attack, those complaints are actually typical heart attack symptoms for women, said Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin, medical director of the cardiac health program and co-director of the Women’s Cardiac Assessment and Risk Evaluation Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Initially, her discomfort didn’t trigger any alarms, O’Donnell said, although she was worried enough to Google women’s heart attack symptoms, according to People magazine.

Recalling a Bayer aspirin commercial she had seen, the former talk show host took an aspirin, which experts advise for people who suspect they’re having a heart attack. But she didn’t call 911 for emergency assistance.

“With those symptoms, that was a mistake,” McLaughlin said. “We have a saying, ‘time is muscle.’ The longer the heart goes without oxygen, the more damage occurs to the heart muscle.”

Six hours is one yardstick cardiologists use for restoring blood flow to the coronary arteries, she added.

Heart attacks occur when blood flow delivering oxygen to the heart muscle is severely decreased or blocked completely because of a buildup of fat, cholesterol and plaque in the arteries. In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds, the American Heart Association says.

Although heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, women frequently dismiss common symptoms of heart attack — such as breathlessness and nausea — to aging, the flu or acid reflux, according to the heart association. They assume the signs of heart attack are unmistakable, when in fact they can be vague and confusing.

“It’s great that she (O’Donnell) is talking about her symptoms,” McLaughlin said.

While both women and men can suffer chest pain that radiates to the arms, women often get that cold, clammy feeling and nausea, McLaughlin said.

If reports that O’Donnell had 99 percent blockage of her coronary artery are accurate, McLaughlin said other warning signs may have occurred over the prior year that O’Donnell didn’t recognize. “I’d like to know if she had chest pain under emotional or physical stress,” she said.

The American Heart Association lists the following heart attack signs for women:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or comes and goes.
  • Discomfort or pain in either or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea, breaking out in a cold sweat, or lightheadedness.

While chest pain or discomfort is equally common among men and women, the heart association says women are more likely to suffer other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and/or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, call 911 within five minutes and get to a hospital immediately, the heart association advises.

O’Donnell waited until the next day to see a doctor. She said her coronary artery was 99 percent blocked, and a stent — a small mesh device — was inserted into the artery to restore normal blood flow.

Her survival was a “miracle,” O’Donnell reportedly said. A spokeswoman said she is resting comfortably at home.

Maintaining a healthy weight and keeping risk factors such as high cholesterol levels under control are key ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. Over the years, O’Donnell has publicly discussed her struggles with weight, which has reached 300 pounds, according to some published reports.

O’Donnell’s advice to her fans, as reported in People: “know the symptoms ladies/listen to the voice inside/the one we all so easily ignore/CALL 911/save urself.”

More information

For more on women and heart attack, visit the American Heart Association.