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Take it to Heart: Heart Attack Symptoms and When You Should Get Help

Heart Health

Willits, CA – Besides being the month of love, February is also a time to think about heart health. Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital (HMH) held a free heart health screening event recently to educate the community about heart disease. While blood pressure checks and diabetes screenings were also provided, the main goals were prevention and education.

“It’s sad that heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women in the U.S. but the good news is that it is largely preventable through lifestyle changes,” shares Annie Frassinello, registered dietitian and diabetes educator at HMH. “By making efforts to become more active, eat a healthy diet and control blood sugars we can keep our hearts happy and healthy for a lifetime,” adds Frassinello.

But Henrietta Simonsson, RN, who works in the emergency room also cautions others about being too complacent, “Just because they are relatively healthy or have no issues with diabetes, or high blood pressure, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a heart attack.” With the information overload especially this month, it’s easy to pass this information by. “But the more you know about the signs and symptoms the faster you can get help,” Simonsson adds. 

Michael Medvin, MD, emergency physician at HMH explains, “We have a saying in medicine, ‘Time is myocardium,’ or ‘time is muscle.’ That means the longer you wait to get help for a heart attack, the more likely it is your heart muscle will suffer damage. Heart muscle doesn’t grow back. That’s why you should never wait to see if your symptoms get better or worse. You’ll have the best possible chance of saving your heart when you get care right away from a hospital.”

HMH’s new emergency department (ED) staff is trained to provide immediate care to stop a heart attack in progress. “People think that they can save time by driving themselves to the ER, but the truth is, you’ll save the most time by calling 911 and waiting for an ambulance to come,” shares ED Director, Amy Buckingham. 

“And remember that with an ambulance, EMS personnel can start administering life-saving treatment on your way to the hospital, Buckingham adds. 

So what are the signs of a heart attack you should look out for? The classic “Hollywood” representation of a heart attack is not very accurate, explains Dr. Medvin. “Don’t look out for the stereotypical ‘chest pain’. For most people, it is more like a feeling of pressure, almost like there is a tight band around their chest or someone is sitting on their chest.” Dr. Medvin also warns about being too focused on one symptom. “They should also look beyond chest pains and watch out for other atypical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and sweating.”

Sometimes people mistake a heart attack for indigestion or gastrointestinal reflux, which most people ignore. So how do you know the difference? “Look out for the signs collectively and not by themselves. If you feel like you have indigestion, you’re sweating and there’s jaw pain, it’s probably best to call 911 instead of taking another antacid,” explains Dr. Medvin. 

And here’s the kicker, for women the symptoms can be very different than what men experience. “For women, the symptoms can include shortness of breath, fatigue, light headedness, back pain and shoulder pain. “Because women tend to take care of everyone else, they tend to minimize their symptoms and get help later,” adds Dr. Medvin. “At the early signs of a heart attack, women tend to wash dishes, take the kids to school and go on like nothing happened, and by the time they get to the hospital, a whole day has passed.” The bottom line: Listen to your body and know what’s normal and what isn’t. If you start experiencing symptoms that are different from what you would expect, seek help immediately.

At the end of the day, no one is immune from heart attacks and it’s good to think about heart health all year long. “It pays to keep your heart healthy by eating right, getting enough exercise, monitoring your blood pressure, stopping smoking and keeping up with your annual exams,” concludes Dr. Medvin.


Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital is part of Adventist Health, a faith-based, not-for-profit integrated health care delivery system serving communities in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. Our workforce of 28,600 includes more than 20,500 employees; 4,500 medical staff physicians; and 3,600 volunteers. Founded on Seventh-day Adventist health values, Adventist Health provides compassionate care in 19 hospitals, more than 220 clinics (hospital-based, rural health and physician clinics), 14 home care agencies, seven hospice agencies and four joint-venture retirement centers. We invite you to visit for more information.