Five days after the birth of my second child, I was drinking a cup of coffee and posting a picture of my newborn son, Hunter, on Instagram when I suddenly felt intense pressure in my chest.
The intensity of the pain was startling. I was sure it would pass, so I just waited. I’d experienced low blood pressure a few days earlier while in the hospital and thought maybe that was it. My husband, Evan, was becoming concerned.
I was doing my best to wait it out, but that was becoming difficult. There was an elephant sitting on my chest and it was not going anywhere. We started discussing whether we should go to the emergency room. My mind briefly flashed to a co-worker who’d died several days after giving birth due to an unknown heart issue. Maybe going to the hospital wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
I felt a little silly, but Evan and I hastily packed a diaper bag and with newborn in tow, we headed to the car. (Our daughter happened to be in day care that morning.) By the time we got there I was profusely sweating and felt like I was going to pass out. My husband drove us the short distance to Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center. Part of me was still in denial that anything could be wrong. At the same time, an ominous feeling hovered – something felt very off.
At the hospital, much to my shock, I was told my electrocardiogram (EKG) ‘didn’t look good’ and I would be rushed by ambulance to Presbyterian Medical Center near uptown Charlotte. In the ambulance, I remember thinking: This cannot be happening. I have two very young children, a 5-day-old and a 2-year-old. I’m just 33. I cannot die.
They gave me medication for the pain and I felt a little calmer. When I awoke in the cath lab, I was informed I was having a severe heart attack due to a SCAD or a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. I had never heard of SCAD.
I would learn later that unlike most heart attacks caused by buildup of plaque in the blood vessels of the heart, SCAD is caused by a weakening of blood vessels that leads to a sudden rupture in one or more arteries. Relatively rare, SCAD generally occurs in young, healthy women and there seems to be a hormonal relationship – in my case having just given birth.
Stress can also be a factor, research has shown. The year preceding Hunter’s birth was an emotional roller coaster for our family as we learned early in utero that Hunter may have some health concerns. And we’d had a big scare after Hunter had complications early and landed in the neonatal intensive care unit. Thankfully, he is thriving now, but his pregnancy and the early days after his birth were the most frightening time in my life.
‘Would I be OK?”
The doctors said I needed emergency double bypass surgery to restore blood flow to the left side of my heart. They told my husband I would die without the surgery.
When they told me, I must have been heavily medicated because I remember being quite accepting and fairly calm when I said goodbye to my husband, knowing that this may be the last time I got to speak to him ever. I still get emotional now, just thinking about it.
I didn’t know at the time how lucky I was. The cardiologist who saw me at Huntersville had taken one look at the EKG and sent it to Dr. Amjad AlMahameed*, an interventional cardiologist at the Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute.
When he saw the image, he had me rushed by ambulance to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center for surgery. He would tell the Charlotte Observer, which wrote a story about my case: “If she were a man, we would call what she had a widowmaker, because it usually kills young men.”
Thankfully, the surgery went well. They took a vein from my leg and used it to create a new connection to my heart. I spent a week recovering in the hospital. I was still scared at the time because my heart was weak. Thoughts constantly raced through my mind: Would I be OK? What did the future hold? At the same time, I was profoundly thankful to be alive.
As I look back, the care I received from the moment I stepped foot in the ER to leaving a week later was nothing short of remarkable. The support and love I felt from the staff was overwhelming. Everyone was praying for me, rooting for me. Although my experience was traumatic, the love and care made the pain so much easier to bear. The cath lab even brought gifts and flowers for my newborn son. We were so incredibly touched.
I have been told that timing is everything in a case like mine and I feel incredibly fortunate how quickly I was diagnosed and rushed back to surgery. Now, almost a year later, my heart function is back to normal. I am so thankful not only to be alive, but to be able to live a relatively normal life even after having a heart attack. Hunter is starting to walk and my 3-year-old daughter Madison is loving gymnastics and preschool.
At this time, there is no screening protocol for SCAD, and no particular preventive steps young, healthy women can take. But if you are experiencing chest pain or other symptoms generally associated with a heart attack, please go to the ER, even if you are young and have no risk factors. Anyone can have a heart attack and rapid identification and treatment are critical.
Lauren Dungan lives in Cornelius, North Carolina with her husband, Evan, their two children, Madison and Hunter, and dog, Bella. She currently works in compliance and operational risk at Bank of America. To connect with other local SCAD survivors, Lauren has started an active Facebook group called ‘North Carolina SCAD Survivors.’
*Dr. AlMahameed joined Novant Health in 2017. He spent five years on staff at the Cleveland Clinic and 11 years at Harvard Medical School.
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