Cardiologist and Rosie O’Donnell herself are all saying the same thing. The 50-year-old actress-comedienne is lucky to be alive after suffering a heart attack. The former daytime host credited her survival to quick internet research on her painful symptoms and an aspirin she had seen recommended in TV commercials.
O’Donnell reported that she had suffered what her doctors called the “widow maker,” a 99 percent blockage of the left descending artery that feeds the heart.
“The first thing we women do is become stupid,” said Dr. Kathleen McNicholas, a former heart surgeon and medical director of performance improvement at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. “She could have died. Sudden death in women is a reasonable presentation.”
Two-thirds of women and one-third of doctors don’t recognize the symptoms of heart attack in females, McNicholas said.
“These symptoms are often more subtle than the classic ‘elephant sitting on your chest,'” she said. “The universal sign of a heart attack, clutching your chest, often doesn’t apply to women.”
O’Donnell likely had ischemia, or a “heart cramp,”McNicholas said. “We can get through heart cramps, but she could have gone on to total occlusion,” or obstruction.
“Thank god, saved by a tv commercial, literally,” she wrote in her usual verse form on her rosie.com blog, which uses a heart on the Web page instead of a dot to separate “rosie” from “com.”
She ended up having a mesh tube called a stent inserted into one of her heart’s arteries after doctors discovered it was 99 percent blocked.
She explained she was in a parking lot in her Hudson Valley hometown of Nyack, N.Y., when she “heard a loud commanding voice” asking for help and “saw an enormous woman struggling to get out of her car.”
O’Donnell helped the woman out of her car. “It was not easy but together we did it,” she wrote. The woman “was up and on her way with gratitude.”
“A few hours later my body hurt,” O’Donnell wrote. “I had an ache in my chest, both my arms were sore, everything felt bruised.”
She first thought it was “muscular” or a “pulled tissue” after straining to help the woman.
But the pain persisted, she felt nauseated, “my skin was clammy, i was very very hot, i threw up.”
It couldn’t be a heart attack, she said she thought. But she “googled women’s heart attack symptoms” and discovered she had “many of them.”
She took some aspirin, but didn’t call emergency paramedics, choosing instead to visit a cardiologist the next day.
An electrocardiogram, or EKG, revealed the massive blockage in her left anterior descending artery — a condition she said doctors colorfully refer to as a “widow maker” — because if the artery gets abruptly and completely blocked it will cause a massive heart attack that will likely lead to a sudden death.
“I am lucky to be here,” O’Donnell wrote.
“Know the symptoms ladies, listen to the voice inside. The one we all so easily ignore. CALL 911. save urself xxx,” she concluded after citing statistics that 50 percent of U.S. women suffering heart attacks don’t call the emergency telephone number.
“She is now home and resting comfortably. She is very, very lucky,” an O’Donnell spokesman told People magazine.
An estimated 400,000 women die every year of heart disease, 10 times more than die of breast cancer annually, according to the American Heart Association.
Symptoms can include pressure, a tightening or heaviness, not necessarily pain. Flu-like symptoms, nausea, shortness of breath and excessive fatigue are also common.
Some women just stay at home because it is not painful enough to seek help. Others even say their earlobes hurt, Dr. Kathleen McNicholas said. And the risk increases as women reach menopause, “catching up” with men’s risk.
McNicholas was in her “prime” when she had a heart attack at 54, working 100 hours a week as a surgeon and going to law school at night. “I had every reason to feel fatigued,” she said.
“My back and shoulders ached,” she said. “I looked gray, but we don’t ask other people how we look or say how terrible we feel. We lay on the couch and figure it’s going to pass.
“The point is we don’t want to go to the emergency room and make a fool out of ourselves if we don’t have a good story.”
She didn’t seek help for a month, but came to her senses while on holiday at the Jersey Shore when her sister reminded her that both her parents had died of heart disease.
“My sister slept on the same floor as me, and the next morning she said, ‘You coughed all night. … Mom coughed like that when she died.’ … That’s what pushed me. You have to have someone else notice.”
McNicholas began a program at Christiana Care called “No Heart Left Behind,” encouraging teens to educate their middle-aged mothers about heart disease.
One of her students saved her mother-in-law’s life on a ski vacation, insisting she go to the emergency room, even when everyone else around her said it was altitude sickness. The woman was perfectly fit, walking five miles a day.
As for O’Donnell, McNicholas said the comedian likely “sure looked like hell and should have said to her partner, ‘How do I look?’ and gone to the hospital.”
O’Donnell is recovering. She is “resting at home and doing fine,” according to her publicist.
The attack makes for a turbulent August in the O’Donnell house. Rosie’s fiancee, Michelle Rounds, was recentlydiagnosed with desmoid tumors, a rare disease that can destroy tissue in the same fashion as a cancerous tumor.
Contributor D. Chandler