Kristen Sarnicola’s characteristics were not typical of a heart attack victim.

The Kentwood, Michigan, resident’s health seemed entirely in order: She didn’t have diabetes, she didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and she didn’t smoke.

At age 43, her weight seemed good. She had no family history of heart attacks.

In other words, she had none of the risk factors that would make her predisposed to a heart attack.

Yet on March 23, she experienced some of the classic symptoms of a woman having a heart attack—symptoms that can be nothing short of devious. Many women don’t even recognize them as signs of a heart attack.

Fortunately for Sarnicola, astute co-workers wasted no time in calling 911 when they saw her in distress.

“I was unbelievably hot, dizzy and I felt there was something pushing on my lungs,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe. I was at work and also felt light-headed.”

She said she crawled to the floor from her chair because she felt lightheaded and feared she’d pass out if she tried to walk. Her coworkers called 911.

“I didn’t think it was a heart attack,” said Sarnicola, who works for the Calvin College campus bakery. “I didn’t think it had anything to do with my heart. I thought it was something with my lungs.”

Sarnicola is not alone when it comes to inaccurate self-diagnosis, said Nagib Chalfoun, MD, of Spectrum Health cardiovascular services.

Men and women experience some similar symptoms, Dr. Chalfoun said, which can include chest pain or pain in the left arm and jaw.

But in addition, women may break out in a cold sweat. They can also become light-headed and nauseous.

“Because these symptoms are more atypical, women often just take an aspirin and don’t call 911,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “They’ll wait longer until they’re diagnosed. But that’s dangerous. The longer they wait, the harder it is to unblock a clogged artery.”

Quick action

Treatment for a heart attack is similar in men and women. Usually, a stent is inserted in the blocked artery.

However, sometimes in women the blockage is in the smaller blood vessels, which are much harder to unclog, Dr. Chalfoun said.

That’s why immediate medical attention is critical.

“The longer you wait, the more likely you may die of a heart attack,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “If you are having symptoms such chest pressure, nausea and light-headedness, err on the side of caution and call 911.”

Doctors still aren’t sure why Sarnicola had a heart attack, but the quick response helped save her life.

Now on her way to recovery, she admits that she’s lucky—the blockage had been in a major artery, not a small blood vessel.

She’s taking a blood thinner, as well as two blood pressure medications and a cholesterol medication. She hopes the drugs, combined with exercise, will help build or repair her heart muscles.

The whole experience is a bit surreal to her.

“I think I’m still somewhat in shock that it even happened, but I’m thankful and amazed,” Sarnicola said. “The firefighters, EMTs and doctors figured out what was wrong and I’m still here.

“Obviously, God was not done with me here on earth,” she said.