Sharing Mayo Clinic

Stories from patients, family, friends and Mayo Clinic staff

September 13, 2017

Cardiology Nurse, Heart Attack Survivor Has Message for Women: ‘Listen to Your Body’

By SharingMayoClinic

After surviving a heart attack of her own, cardiology nurse Kristin O'Meara has a clear and important message for women: "Listen to your body."

After surviving a heart attack of her own, cardiology nurse Kristin O'Meara has a clear and important message for women: "Listen to your body."

Kristin O'Meara's story, she says, is one of denial.

It began with searing chest pain, a serious symptom Kristin understands well from three decades as a cardiology nurse at Mayo Clinic. But when that pain was in her own chest, Kristin had a hard time recognizing it for what it was.

"The brain works in funny ways," she says. "I was in good shape. My numbers were all good. I told myself there is no possible way this could be a heart attack."

A visit to the doctor proved her wrong. Despite the fact that she was active and fit, doctors at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus discovered Kristin was having a heart attack that day as a result of a condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. Before she could get to the diagnosis, Kristin had to overcome her impulse to dismiss her symptoms as something minor. 

Discounting tell-tale signs

On Jan. 5, 2017, Kristin's day started, as had so many before it, with a trip to the gym.

She began running about 20 years ago, and has completed countless half marathons and a few marathons in the years since.

"I've always enjoyed exercise," Kristin says. "It's become a passion of mine."

The activity has also helped Kristin maintain her weight, and keep her cholesterol and blood pressure in check. So when she experienced a sharp pain in her chest while warming up on an elliptical machine, she attributed the feeling to something other than heart trouble.

"My first thought was that it was just one of the aches and pains of aging," Kristin, now 57, says.

She moved to the fitness center's track and began running. After about 40 minutes, Kristin started to feel pressure in her sternum. Then the pain moved to her shoulder and back.

"I didn't want to feel foolish. But as a provider, I know it's always better to err on the side of caution and get your symptoms checked out." — Kristin O'Meara

"I started wondering if it could be a gallbladder attack or an esophageal spasm," Kristin says.

She headed for the locker room, stopping twice to rest before leaving the gym. By that time, Kristin had begun to feel nauseous. She contemplated a trip to Emergency Department, yet something held her back.

"I didn't want to go and find out there was nothing wrong. I didn't want to feel foolish," she says. "But as a provider, I know it's always better to err on the side of caution and get your symptoms checked out."

Kristin wasn't quite ready to listen to that provider's voice inside her head, though. She drove past the hospital but didn't go inside. Instead, she ran an errand and then returned home, where her symptoms escalated. It was getting harder for Kristin to avoid thinking that she might be having a heart attack. She chewed a couple of aspirin tablets and promptly vomited.

Kristin then called her husband, Rick, at work and asked him to come home and drive her to the Emergency Department. She could no longer deny her body's messages. Something was wrong. She needed help.

Finding a diagnosis

Dennis Laudon, M.D., an emergency medicine physician, examined Kristin when she arrived at Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester and immediately suspected her symptoms might be due to spontaneous coronary artery dissection. The condition, which most often affects women with no atherosclerotic risk factors for heart disease, causes a tear or blood pocket in the blood vessels of the heart. This can slow or block blood flow and cause a heart attack.

Cardiologist Marysia Tweet, M.D., a colleague and friend of Kristin's, was called in for a second opinion.

"When I walked into the room and saw Kristin, my heart sank," says Dr. Tweet. "It's hard to see someone you know in that position."

"That is just how Mayo is. Everyone gets together to figure out what's best for each patient." — Kristin O'Meara

She spoke with Kristin about her symptoms and reviewed results of the tests Dr. Laudon had ordered, including an electrocardiogram and blood work. Dr. Tweet, who cares for patients in Mayo Clinic's SCAD Clinic and studies the condition as a member of Mayo's Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) Research Program, agreed with Dr. Laudon's suspicions. But based on Kristin's family history, which included aortic dissection, Dr. Tweet decided to order an additional test.

"I wanted Kristin to have a CT scan to first rule out dissection of the aorta before any invasive procedures," she says. In addition to ruling out an aortic dissection, the test also revealed dissection of the coronary artery.

Kristin was taken to the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, where Thomas Tilbury, M.D. — who she's known for 30 years — opened the obstructed artery with balloon angioplasty.

"It's a challenging procedure in SCAD patients, because there's a risk the artery could tear further," Dr. Tweet says. Before attempting the procedure, she and Dr. Tilbury consulted with two additional colleagues to determine the best treatment option for Kristin.

"That is just how Mayo is," Kristin says. "Everyone gets together to figure out what's best for each patient." 

Gaining new perspective

Kristin O’Meara, right, with running with her daughter, Ericka O’Meara Byer.

After the procedure, Kristin spent four nights in the hospital recovering. She also completed three months of cardiac rehabilitation, learning how to safely return to exercise. She says being on the other side of the bedside was an enlightening and rewarding experience.

"I was so blessed to receive the care I did," she says. "Everyone I encountered was so kind. I've always been very proud to work at Mayo Clinic and have always believed we give outstanding care. But I have a new understanding of that now."

She believes the experience also increased her ability to connect with her patients.

"I was sympathetic, but now I truly understand the fear that patients may have," she says. "I think I can relate better to some of my patients now, and that's also been a blessing."

For years, spontaneous coronary artery dissection was believed to be exceedingly rare. Until 2010, Mayo Clinic saw just 10 patients a year with the condition. But as awareness has grown, thanks in large part to survivors who became advocates, more people have been accurately diagnosed. Today Mayo's SCAD clinic sees more than 10 patients each month. It's a group that shares many similarities.

"Kristin is like so many SCAD patients. She's a model of health and very active. She's not a 'typical' heart attack patient." — Marysia Tweet, M.D.

"Kristin is like so many SCAD patients," Dr. Tweet says. "She's a model of health and very active. She's not a 'typical' heart attack patient."

That's part of what can make the condition so difficult to diagnose. When relatively young, healthy women like Kristin come to emergency departments with chest pain, providers may dismiss the symptoms or attribute them to something other than a heart issue. And like Kristin, patients themselves may not realize their symptoms reflect a heart attack and delay seeking care.

Dr. Tweet and her colleagues including Sharonne Hayes, M.D., Rajiv Gulati, M.D., Ph.D., and Tim Olson, M.D., hope their research will help change that. They're studying data from the ongoing Mayo Clinic SCAD Registry and Biorepository. It currently has over 750 SCAD patients enrolled from around the world. The group has published more than 25 papers on the condition since 2011 in the hope raising awareness among both patients and providers. And they continue to study the data, with a goal of discovering new and better ways to treat and prevent the condition from occurring or recurring. Between 12 to 29 percent of people diagnosed with the condition experience it again.

"I don't plan to be among them," Kristin says.

Reflecting on lessons learned

Instead, Kristin plans to return the life she lived and loved. "I want to go back to the person I was," she says. And she's well on her way. She's returned to work and to running, even completing a half marathon in August.

"It feels wonderful to run," she says. "I'm not as fast as I used to be, but that's OK."

Some other things about Kristin have changed as well.

"Denial is a very strong emotion. I thought I was healthy. I thought I was invincible. But we are not invincible. Anything can happen to anyone. I want to tell women to listen to their bodies." — Kristin O'Meara

"I've learned it's OK to have downtime to sit and think and read and pray," she says. And when she does take time for reflection, she often gives thanks for "the guardian angel that was with me that day."

Kristin hopes her story will help other women who might find themselves in her shoes.

"I knew something wasn't right," she says. "But denial is a very strong emotion. I thought I was healthy. I thought I was invincible. But we are not invincible. Anything can happen to anyone. I want to tell women to listen to their bodies."

Kristin says she's grateful for the chance to be able to continue to listens to hers. "When I wake up each day," she says, "I really do thank God for another day."


Tags: Cardiology, Cardiology & Cardiac Surgery, Dr. Dennis Laudon, Dr. Marysia Tweet, Dr. Rajiv Gulati, Dr. Sharonne Hayes, Dr. Thomas Tilbury, Dr. Tim Olson, SCAD, SCAD Research Program, Spontaneous coronary artery dissection

I myself suffered from SCAD 14 yrs ago 5 days after the birth of my 3rd son by c- section. I ended up with a QUAD bypass. The cardiac surgeon mentioned that I have collateral arteries on the right side of my heart when they opened me up. All I could explain was that I had same symptoms but less severe after my 2nd son was born. I was completely missed and misdiagnosed then. Actually even with last episode I was still misdiagnosed from the local hospital. I ended up presenting myself to a big trauma hospital in the city and that is how I got the right treatment. Nobody believed me then at the local hospital ( where I worked) that i was having a heart attack. Then two years ago, the daughter of my best friend at work showed up at our ER ( different hospital now) with same symptoms but hers was obscured by sickle cell symptoms. She is african descent. I kept insisting to the doctor that she needed to be shifted out to a tertiary facility and he said that the cardiologist consulted didn’t think it was cardiac but chest pain is most likely cause by sickle cell. Short of the story is she ended up going out to the city and had an emergency triple bypass. I thought I would never see or care for anothet person that had same thing like mine. Yes I am a fit person so did not think I would suffer an MI. I am an ER Nurse and what happened to me made me a more efficient nurse!


She had her heart attack one day before I had mine. She’s five years older than I am and fully recovered. I am not even close.


Two weeks after my 60th birthday I had a strange pain thinking it was heartburn, I had finished dinner half hour prior, I took a couple antacid and was fine about an hour later. Believing it was nothing no symptoms the rest of the evening and into the next day, I never mentioned it to my husband. The following evening within half hour of dinner, same feeling of indigestion followed by antacid once again. Within the hour I began vomiting, in my mind confirmation it was GI related. By morning I felt some relief was the exception of annoying heartburn. Throughout the day no relief so I resigned to a visit to Urgent care when the work day ended.
Protocol constitutes an EKG, to my "shock" the doctor came in the room to announce I'm having a heart attack and an ambulance has been called to transport me to the hospital.
Needless to say I was in denial and convinced that there was a mistake. I'm a nonsmoker, not even an occasional drinker, vegetarian, perfect BMI, no history of heart disease, exercise daily and no high blood pressure. I assumed that they would send me home when I got to the ER, instead I was greeted by a team of people preparing me for the Cath Lab. As I am on the table through the procedure I was told that I have "beautiful" arteries with the exception of the one that has dissected. SCAD?? How does that happen?? Why??
As I am wrapping up my hospital stay, I am finally able to accept that I actually had a heart attack but still totally confused as to why.
In following weeks I am overwhelmed with guilt that I put my family through such a traumatic experience and angry that I checked ALL the boxes in being proactive about heart health. I feel like reality gave me a huge slap in the face. Reality of not seeking immediate medical care has left me with significant damage to my heart and lessened heart function. Oh how I wish I knew that SCAD was even possible I would not have waited 48 hours to see a doctor.
I am so Greatful, Thankful and truly Blessed that I am with my family and on the road to recovery.

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