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How I did it • She changed her life after heart attack

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Ann Hamilton

Ann Hamilton, 64, of St. Louis, a retired educator, says she has taken charge of her life after suffering a heart attack. She exercises, eats more healthful food and does her own research to keep track of her health rather than rely on others, including physicians.

That December day, the day after she’d celebrated “a wonderful Christmas” with her grown children, might have been Ann Hamilton’s last.

On Dec. 26, 2014, she began to feel joint pain. She nearly disregarded it; she had a pin in her left arm from an accident some years ago. 

“I thought it was arthritis,” she said. That night she ate Chinese takeout. “I started feeling nauseous. I thought, the Chinese food was bad.”

Later, when she awoke from a sleep, she vomited. She applied a heat rub to her aching arm and then wrapped it.

“Then I felt like I was being squeezed in my lower back,” she said. “I put on something very tight; I needed that squeeze to stop.”

I had to sit in the bathroom because I was throwing up so much, she said. The squeezing got worse.

“About 3 a.m., I called the hospital and told them what I was feeling,” Hamilton said. “They said get to the hospital immediately, and don’t drive.” She called a taxi.

The medical community calls what happened to Ann Hamilton, 64, atypical symptoms for a heart attack. That’s because they aren’t the symptoms men have. The danger, says the American Heart Association, is that they’re difficult to recognize, women often disregard them as something else, which often proves fatal.

She was hospitalized from Dec. 26-29 with a heart attack. She’d still caught it in time that she suffered no major damage to her heart. She was generally fit, so blood thinning medication solved problems, and she didn’t need stents to open any blood vessels, she said. Still, “I’ve taken more medication than I’ve ever taken.”

“I was taken aback by it,” she said. “It’s one of those things where you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. Many times, I have to stop and think, I had a heart attack.”

The American Heart Association says as many as a third of women who have heart attacks have symptoms that differ from the typical problems of chest pains, shortness of breath and temporary paralysis in the arms and shoulders.

These atypical symptoms can lead to more fatalities because they often go unrecognized. Atypical symptoms can include joint pain in the arms, tightness in the chest and back and nausea.

She wasn’t surprised that she had a heart attack. She smoked for several decades, since she was 16. She stopped when she retired two years ago.

She asked her physician then if she could be tested to detect any clogged blood vessels. The doctor said Hamilton’s insurance wouldn’t pay for it.

“I’m still certain that’s why I suffered this heart attack,” she said. “I understand it’s me who smoked all those years, but I still feel if I’d have gotten the (tests), I wouldn’t have suffered a heart attack. Even though I had quit smoking, I had shortness of breath.”

But she attributed that to being tired from her walking. “I love to walk,” she said. She walks around parks and through neighborhoods, she said.

She considered cutting back on her walks. “I look back now, those were symptoms, and they were warning me,” she said.

She recalled that she’d been prone to blood pressure problems all of her life, but “I’ve been on the same medication for years, and my blood pressure and cholesterol never came down,” she said.

That taught her a lesson, she said. Don’t simply accept a physician’s decision if you know something is wrong.

“She never sat down with me and explained any of this,” she said. ”

Her cholesterol numbers were high, too, she said, but she’d never known to be concerned about that. “I didn’t know how important that was. Since the heart attack, I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s a new lease on life. I’m eating healthier; I’m exercising more.”

Since the heart attack and her medication being changed, her blood pressure is normal and her cholesterol levels are under control.

She has taken charge in other areas, too, she said.

Before the heart attack, too many meals consisted of “pizza, fried chicken, whatever I felt I was big and bad enough to eat.”

She praises OASIS and the Urban League, organizations that offer health and fitness services, for educating her on how to take care of herself.

She eats a lot more fish, baked foods, a lot of stir fry. She works to give back to the Urban League and OASIS and other groups, too, especially those that help others.

“I like sharing this with others,” she said.

Do you know a ‘How I did it?’

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Harry Jackson Jr.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

900 North Tucker Boulevard

St. Louis, Mo. 63101-1099

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Harry Jackson is a health reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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