This woman would have died if her husband hadn’t convinced her to visit the ER.
As a prosecution attorney, Sue Palmer had seen endless cases of violence resulting in death, including those at the hands of a serial killer. At the age of 46, she never thought that she would also become the victim of a serial killer and nearly lose her life.
That’s exactly what doctors call a medical issue dubbed “the widowmaker”—a serial killer whose victims never see the attack coming and typically don’t stand a chance. That’s almost what happened to Palmer on a summer day when she woke up feeling ill.
It happened just as it usually does when you contract the stomach flu or food poisoning: Palmer woke up around 5am without knowing why, then seconds later she rushed to the toilet after realizing she was going to be sick. She returned to bed, only to get sick again minutes later. Though she thought she was suffering from a 24-hour bug, one that starts as suddenly as this one had, her husband, Tim, was not as optimistic. She recalls this exchange with her husband that morning:
“‘Let’s go to the emergency room.’
I laughed. ‘Why?’ I asked.
He replied, ‘You could be having a heart attack.’”
Sue assumed that he was just being paranoid because Tim’s father had died from a heart attack at the age of 64. At 46 years old, with no history of high cholesterol, obesity, heart disease in the family, and a penchant for eating well and exercising regularly, Sue didn’t think she could be experiencing a heart attack. She didn’t have any of the regular symptoms, like chest pain, but Tim was insistent and they wound up going to the ER and telling the person at the front desk that she might be experiencing a heart attack.
As Sue went through the typical questions with doctors, she became increasingly embarrassed because all the signs pointed to them being overly cautious and bothersome by coming to the ER for a few fits of vomiting. They performed one EKG, which was a little abnormal, so they decided to do another for good measure. Suddenly, the atmosphere around her changed. Doctors and nurses were flying around her, she was being carted off in a gurney, and her clothes were being ripped off while others inserted needles into her arms.
Dr. Fredi, who was walking right next to her, informed her that he would take car of her like he would a member of his own family and that he would be in charge. Without even knowing what was going on, Sue accepted Fredi’s consolation. She was taken into an operating room and immediately passed out. When she awoke, Tim was in the room and had some alarming news for her.
“He told me that I had had a major heart attack, that I was in the process of having it when we went to the hospital, and that Joseph Fredi, an interventional cardiologist, had been able to stop it in its tracks. He literally stopped the heart attack while it was happening.”
So what had happened to Sue? Well, it turns out that she had been the victim of “the widowmaker,” a medical phenomenon that occurs when the center coronary artery is blocked. Dr. Fredi first determined that her center coronary artery, called the LAD, was 70 percent blocked and her right coronary artery was 100 percent blocked. LAD blockage is called “the widowmaker” because it is the most common cause of sudden death and often goes undetected by patients before they die. For Sue, this was caused by plaque that had ruptured in the wall of her right coronary artery and caused a clot to form, which is what spurred the nausea she had had that morning. Her nausea and paleness were the only warning signs, so it’s extremely fortunate that her husband had been insistent on taking her into the ER.
Heart disease is the primary cause of death for women in the United States and Sue says she is lucky to be alive. Her heart seems perfectly healthy now, but her lesson to all after experiencing this life-threatening situation is this:
“Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Just because you’re young and healthy, because you don’t smoke or drink, because you work out and you’re thin and you eat well and you’ve never had any medical problems and you have no family history, don’t think that you can’t have a heart attack. You can.”