I thought I caught the flu from my kids. I was actually having a massive heart attack.
- Jenna Tanner started having chest pain shortly after her kids had recovered from COVID and the flu.
- She didn't think her symptoms were serious and pushed through; days later, she had a heart attack.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Jenna Tanner. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The start of 2022 brought one illness after another for my family. Between COVID and the flu, I felt like I had been at the doctor's office constantly for three months.
Finally, in March, the kids were all back to school, so I set about cleaning and disinfecting the house. I started having chest pain that felt like a fleeting pinch. It would last for a few seconds and I'd feel pressure, but when I sat down, it stopped. I figured I was coming down with the flu, and I pushed through, trying to get the house in order before I got really sick.
That lasted for two days. By the third day the pain was persistent enough that I almost mentioned it to my husband. But I knew he would want me to go to the hospital, and I just couldn't face yet another trip to the doctors. I was so burned out from being in waiting rooms.
It felt like I had an elephant on my chest
Later that day I was vacuuming when I suddenly felt like I had to sit down. I plopped into my husband's recliner and set my phone on the armrest. When I felt better I got up and walked to my office, two rooms over. When I got there, I knew I was going to faint. My vision went dark and I could hear the blood rushing as loud as the ocean in my ears.
I laid down on the floor and immediately felt like an elephant had landed on my chest. In the seconds before I passed out, I realized I was having a heart attack.
I've fainted in the past, but this time when I came to it was much more violent. It felt like an electric jolt going through my body, or like being in labor. My whole body was convulsing, but I couldn't make any voluntary movements. When I started throwing up, there was no way I could move out of the way of the vomit — I just watched helplessly as it came toward me.
My life flashed before my eyes and I believed I would die
The only thing I could control was my breath. I started humming as I breathed out. It was a way to make sure that I was still alive, and it became almost like a mantra. When the hum got louder I knew my breath was stronger, so I tried to move, but I passed out again.
This time, when I came to, I felt disconnected from what was happening. My life flashed before my eyes and I saw memories I didn't even know I had. As the memories passed before me I knew I'd lived an amazing life. Forty-six was too young to die, and I was sad for my children, but I was ok if this was the end.
Yet, it wasn't. When my humming got strong again I shouted for help. I knew no one would hear me — I was home alone and my office is at the back of the house. But my cat came padding into the room, and I instinctively reached out to pat her. That's how I realized I could move.
Thinking of my son gave me the strength to get to the phone
I imagined my youngest son, who was 10 at the time, coming home and finding me dead. That gave me the push I needed to move. I started army crawling to the living room, where my phone was. I was face-planting very few feet but eventually, I reached the chair and called my husband.
I've never called him at work in 13 years, so he knew something was very wrong. He told me to hang up and call 911, and he did the same. The 911 dispatcher asked if the door was unlocked, and my mind flashed to the five locks we had to install because our child was an escape artist.
I truly thought that if the first responders had to beat down the door they wouldn't reach me in time. Somehow I crawled to the door. As I undid the last lock and collapsed, I could see the firefighters running across my lawn.
The heart attack changed my parenting
In the hospital, doctors realized I had a complete block of the left main coronary artery, which meant half my heart had no blood flow. Normally, doctors treat this with open heart surgery, but I wasn't stable enough. Instead doctors used an Impella pump, a device inserted through an artery in my groin, to restart blood flow to my heart. After that, I was stable enough for surgery.
It's been about 18 months since my heart attack. I'm still dealing with some of the physical side effects, like taking blood pressure medication and blood thinners. But the bigger challenge has been dealing with the trauma. I've had such an emotional upheaval. My hair is thinning because of the stress.
I hope more women pay attention to their heart health, and speak up when they feel something's wrong. Today, I look at life a lot differently than I did before the heart attack. I'm more lenient with my kids. I know how precious each day is, and I'm so grateful that I'm here.
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