When I was in my first year of grad school at Indiana University, my next door neighbor in the dorm was a woman named Cathy. She was a cute, slender 23-year-old who didn't drink, smoke or do drugs and who regularly worked out.
And she had a heart attack over spring break.
She was swimming at the university's gym when she started having severe chest pains. Worried, she dried off and drove herself to the hospital, where the doctors discovered she was in the middle of a myocardial infarction.
The doctors were mystified by her heart attack. She has no family history of heart trouble, and she was young and healthy. At first, they thought it might have been caused by her swimming in cold water (this makes the blood vessels constrict and could cause a clot.)
But then they discovered that her arteries were clogged. She later told me, "The doctor said I have the kind of plaque in my arteries that you expect to see in somebody three times my age."
So the doctors did an angioplasty -- the ran a little balloon on a catheter up from the vein in her leg to the clog and inflated the balloon to try to open the artery. It didn't go well; she had more chest pains and had some spasms. They discovered that she had a clot in her heart.
One of her doctors, C.A. Pinkerton, is a well-known cardiac surgeon. He decided to try what was at the time an experimental procedure: another angioplasty, but this time the balloon carries with it a little spring, very much like the spring inside a retractable ball-point pen. When the balloon is inflated, it puts the spring into the artery, and the spring stays there to keep the vessel open.
The procedure worked, and Cathy was out of danger. She ultimately spent several weeks in the coronary care unit at St. Vincent's in Indianapolis, which I have been told is one of the best facilities of its kind in the nation.
So far, she is doing okay. The last time I talked to her she told me the doctors think she'll be able to live a full life. They decided she'd either inherited a bad gene or had a mutation that caused her to have extremely high blood cholesterol; as a result, she was going to have to be on a very restricted diet for the rest of her life.
So I guess the take-home message is this: take chest pains seriously, even if you're young and fit and female.