Young woman shares story of surviving heart attack

Heart attacks hit young, healthy women

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Courtney Alexander was a healthy young mom and an athlete, but she nearly died from a heart attack after a day of skiing at Mount Brighton.

"I had this severe back pain that came out of the blue right between my shoulder blades, to the point where it was even hard to stand up," Alexander said. "I had pain going down my arms into my hands. I felt lightheaded, a little nauseous and something was definitely not right."

She went to the emergency room.

"They ran some musculoskeletal tests and said, 'Well, it could be your heart, but you're young. You don't have any risk factors,'" Alexander said.

Alexander was just 33 years old with no family history of heart disease. A former college athlete, she was in great shape. She even played hockey.

But she was having a heart attack.

"Twenty minutes after I got discharged, I went into full cardiac arrest at my neighbor's house," Alexander said. "The person who witnessed it called for help, started CPR immediately. The 911 dispatcher walked the people through CPR. Police were first on the scene. They had an AED, automatic defibrillator, in the back of their car. That's what saves people who go into cardiac arrest."

Doctors at the University of Michigan discovered Alexander had suffered a type of heart attack called SCAD -- spontaneous coronary artery dissection.

For reasons that aren't clear, the artery suddenly begins to tear, blocking blood flow to the heart.

"My kids were six, four and two, so I can't imagine them having to grow up without a mom, and I will always be appreciative to the people who acted fast and the doctors and nurses here who were able to save me and give my kids a mom," Alexander said.

SCAD often strikes young, healthy women. Up to 30 percent of cases occur in women who've recently had a baby.

The symptoms can include chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, pain in the arms, back, neck or jaw, nausea, lightheadedness and sweating.

Alexander hoped sharing her close call can help save lives.

"If I would have known that, I might have been able to express myself better in the emergency room and be able to say, 'Hey, I think this possibly could be a heart thing going on,'" Alexander said.

SCAD is generally treated with medication and lifestyle changes. Alexander has an implanted defibrillator in her chest, just in case it happens again.

She has become an advocate for Hands-only CPR and AEDs.

"We're working really hard right now in Michigan to really increase the survival rate, because it can be done, and it deserves to be done," Alexander said. "The worst thing you can do is just not do anything at all."

To learn more about SCAD, click here.

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