My High Cholesterol Caused a Rare Type of Heart Attack Days After I Gave Birth

She was young, fit, and healthy. But eight days after giving birth, she had a rare type of heart attack called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which was caused by undiagnosed high cholesterol.

Jenny Petz HeadshotCourtesy Jenny Petz

High cholesterol

Hypercholesterolemia—better known as high cholesterol—increases your risk for heart disease and stroke. However, it often has no symptoms, making it a silent killer. Case in point: high cholesterol nearly ended a new mother’s life when it led to a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a rare type of heart attack. Jenny Petz, 46, a mother of two, shares her story about how she discovered she has a genetic mutation for high cholesterol and why she is now an ambassador for Check, Change, Control, Cholesterol, an American Heart Association initiative that aims to bring awareness to high cholesterol and encourage everyone to get tested.

I had no idea what was going on

Why is my mother sitting on my chest to talk to me? The thought was irrational, but it was the only explanation I could think of for the extreme chest pressure and heaviness I was feeling as I lay on the nursery floor, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Later I would learn that my mother was there, but she wasn’t talking to me. She was on the phone with a 911 operator. And that chest heaviness? I was having a heart attack—caused by undiagnosed high cholesterol.

I hadn’t recognized the symptoms

New motherhood can be tough even under the best of circumstances, so when I felt exhausted, anxious, and a little breathless in the days after my second baby was born, I didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary. What mother of an infant isn’t tired and worried?

Then, when my son was just eight days old, the unthinkable happened.

I was sitting and nursing him when I began to feel very tired. My throat felt like it was closing up, and my left arm went numb. Before I really even realized what was happening, I fainted. I hit the floor with a thump.

Other than feeling confused and scared, I don’t remember much of what happened until I regained consciousness in the ambulance.

The EMTs told me I probably had bad heartburn or possibly a stroke, but no one seemed to think a heart attack was a real possibility. And why would they? I was young—just 33 years old—fit, and slim. I was the picture of health.

It was a rare type of heart attack

At the hospital, they did an EKG and discovered how serious my condition was. Further tests showed that I had had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). It’s as scary as it sounds: one of the main arteries to my heart exploded, causing a heart attack. Symptoms or warning signs can be subtle, and in some cases it can be fatal.

It turned out that an artery to my heart was 90 percent blocked. When my pregnancy put extra strain on my heart, the clogged artery increased the work for my remaining arteries. The pressure eventually became too much.

Soon enough, one of those arteries spontaneously ruptured and blocked two other arteries. The end result: a SCAD.

Armed with that knowledge, the medical team rushed me into emergency surgery. Doctors were able to put a stent in the blocked artery and repair the artery that exploded. I felt so lucky to be alive.

It was all due to high cholesterol

The extra stress from my pregnancy triggered the SCAD, but the real culprit was the undiagnosed high cholesterol that caused the artery blockage in the first place. At the time of my surgery, my total cholesterol was 317 mg/dl, far into the extreme risk category.

The doctor told me that my cholesterol had likely been high for years, if not most of my life. That was news to me.

I’d never had my cholesterol tested because I’d never seen a reason to. I was young and healthy and had no obvious risk factors for heart disease. High cholesterol on its own has no symptoms, and I never felt sick. So I was completely unaware of the growing threat building inside my chest.

After some testing, I was diagnosed with familial hypercholesterolemia. It’s a life-threatening genetic condition that leads to high cholesterol starting in early childhood and heart attacks, even in young people.

I’ve since had my two kids tested, and fortunately they did not inherit it!

Jenny Petz at the heart truth eventCourtesy Jenny Petz

Healing mentally and physically

After that terrifying experience 13 years ago, I went through cardiac rehabilitation and have no lasting heart damage. My doctors put me on a statin medication to lower cholesterol, and a drug to lower my blood pressure.

In addition to taking meds, I do my best to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet.

For cholesterol management, that means limiting saturated fat, avoiding trans fat, and eating more foods with healthy fats. A diet high in fruits, veggies, fish and lean meat, and whole grains can also help lower cholesterol levels.

Thanks to these changes, my total cholesterol has stayed around 150 mg/dl (right in the healthy range) for years now. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been and feel pretty great.

The damage to my mental health, however, lasted much longer. For years, every ache or twinge sent me into a panic, worrying that I was having another heart attack. Unknown factors about my health could have killed me—was I missing something crucial again?

Taking steps to get my anxiety under control and learning how to feel safe in my body again has been an essential part of my healing.

Everyone should get tested

There are much simpler ways to find out if you have high cholesterol than having a heart attack out of the blue. This is why I share my story as often as possible. I want to encourage everyone, especially young women, to get their cholesterol tested regularly and to find out their family history of heart disease.

Even if you don’t have any symptoms or obvious risk factors, you need to know your numbers. Testing your cholesterol level should be as important and routine as checking your blood pressure, weight, or height. If your doctor doesn’t offer to test you, ask!

—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

Sources
  • Jenny Petz
  • Circulation: "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2020 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association"
  • American Heart Association: "Check. Change. Control. Cholesterol"

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.