Penny Bowman never thought she was at risk of having a heart attack. Just 45 years old, the registered nurse from Mount Airy, North Carolina, didn’t have any of the standard risk factors one normally associates with cardiac disease. She ate well, enjoyed spending time outdoors and maintained a normal blood pressure.

So when the worst pain she’d ever experienced shot across her upper back one January morning, Bowman was stunned.

“It went right across from shoulder to shoulder, and all I could think was, ‘That really hurt,’ because it was like no pain I’d ever had before,” Bowman said. “When it happened again a few seconds later, I thought that maybe I was having a heart attack. But it wasn’t until the third wave swept across my back and radiated up around my neck that I knew for sure.”

Rapid treatment right from the start

Fortunately, Bowman was in the best place possible when the pain hit – a hospital. As a nurse with Mountain Valley Hospice, Bowman was at Northern Hospital of Surry County, waiting to evaluate a patient for hospice services. She immediately found the closest nurses’ station and told them she thought she was having a heart attack.

Just after nurses sat Bowman in a wheelchair, she suddenly became nauseous and passed out. Only three minutes had passed since her symptoms first appeared.

Emergency room doctors stabilized Bowman and transferred her to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center . But instead of an ambulance, they used a medical helicopter, which cut the time it took to transport Bowman from nearly an hour to less than 30 minutes. In addition to speed, another benefit of this state-of-the-art critical care transport method is its wireless telemetry system, which allowed paramedics in the helicopter to transmit the feed from Bowman’s heart monitor to Forsyth Medical Center while in flight. This gave the hospital’s interventional cardiologists important information to help guide their treatment plan before Bowman ever arrived.

Based on the electrocardiography (EKG) readings, Bowman was taken directly to cardiac catheterization upon landing so that doctors could get a look inside her heart. And what they found surprised them. Bowman’s arteries were completely clear.

When a heart attack isn’t a heart attack

Although she had many of the traditional symptoms, Bowman didn’t actually have a heart attack. Instead, she experienced something called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or stress-induced chest pain.

“Named after a takotsubo, the Japanese term for an octopus trap, stress-induced cardiomyopathy is not a heart attack, although it’s often confused for one because the symptoms and EKG readings mimic those found in traditional heart attack patients,” said Dr. Nizar Noureddine , an interventional cardiologist with Forsyth Medical Center who has been treating Bowman since the event. “Instead, this condition, which occurs in people who experience a tremendous amount of physical or emotional stress, squeezes the heart, causing the left ventricle to balloon and the heart to weaken.”

According to Noureddine, roughly 2 percent of suspected heart attacks are actually discovered to be takotsubo cardiomyopathies, with the vast majority occurring in women. Fortunately, takotsubo cardiomyopathies are rarely fatal and generally leave no long-lasting damage. Instead, the heart gradually heals itself and, within about six weeks, resumes its normal pumping function.

Life after chest pain

Of course, that doesn’t mean Bowman took no action after her experience. Instead, after spending three days in the hospital, she returned home to take up her biggest challenge yet – recovery.

Following discharge, Bowman enrolled in the cardiac rehabilitation program at Forsyth Medical Center, which is the American Heart Association’s Forsyth Go Red for Women sponsor. Three times every week, she visits the dedicated cardiac rehab gym, where she works with a team of exercise therapists to improve her aerobic conditioning and regain the stamina she lost due to her takotsubo cardiomyopathy. This comprehensive cardiac health program also includes nutrition education, counseling and smoking cessation and support to help heart disease patients live more healthy and active lifestyles.

And Bowman is taking what she learns at rehab and incorporating it into her everyday life. She has started walking every day and following a more heart-healthy diet. Plus, she’s working on incorporating more stress-reduction techniques into her daily routine.

“I thought I was handling things really well on the outside, but obviously, what’s showing on the outside is not the same as what’s happening on the inside,” Bowman says. “If you have a lot of stress in your life, you need to find ways to manage it, whether it’s yoga, meditation, going to the gym or whatnot. I never did those things for myself before, but now I’ve learned that you have to take time for yourself or you’re not going to be here to help take care of anyone else.”

Heart attack signs in women

Symptoms of heart attack among women typically include:

  • Pressure, fullness, tightness or pain in your chest lasting five minutes or longer.
  • Constant, indigestion-like discomfort.
  • Chest pain that moves to your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back.
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting, sweating or nausea/vomiting.
  • Unexplained shortness of breath.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or tiredness.
  • Palpitations, a cold sweat or paleness.
  • Sudden, racing heart sensation with a very fast pulse.
  • Inability to perform routine activities.

If you’re experiencing chest pains or any other signs of a heart attack, call 911 immediately and ask to be taken to the nearest emergency room.

How's your heart health?

Novant Health has launched a communitywide campaign called the 10,000 Healthy Hearts Challenge with a goal to educate 10,000 people about their heart health by 2018. Take the online heart health risk assessment , which analyzes cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes and body mass index. Then, tag five friends on social media using #NHHealthyHearts to spread the word.

Once you accept the challenge, look for helpful wellness tips, recipe ideas and stress management reminders sent to your inbox to manage your heart health.

With the demands of juggling work and family, it can be difficult to find time to take care of yourself. Download our women’s health guide today.