Minutes after a half-hour drive to Kearney’s Good Samaritan Hospital, Nancy Cunningham’s heart stopped beating. She lay in the emergency room in “code red” as her husband, Tom, watched in disbelief.
His wife of 40 years had passed a stress test and EKG just two years earlier and received a clean bill of health from a recent check-up. Her blood pressure and cholesterol were within normal levels.
However, a piece of plaque had lodged in one of Nancy’s arteries causing the 58-year-old rural Miller mom and grandmother to suffer a heart attack. If she had waited just a bit longer that night, her story might have had a different ending.
Now, five years later, Nancy is doing well. She shares her story to help other women and to keep herself motivated to make healthy lifestyle choices. She encourages all women to recognize the signs of a heart attack, to swallow their pride and take action right away if those symptoms occur and to follow their instincts when something doesn’t seem quite right.
December 8, 2011
Nancy had retired from teaching music at Kearney Public Schools in May of 2011 and experienced many joyful “stresses” in her life as she explored her volunteer and social options after retiring at a young age.
On December 8 that same year, she had been decorating for Christmas and took a break to visit an elderly neighbor. As she traveled home at about noon, she felt a pain in her lower right arm.
“It felt kind of odd like I couldn’t recognize it as a pain I had had before,” she said.
She brushed it off as a muscle strain from carrying boxes of Christmas decorations.
Later in the day, more symptoms developed and Nancy figured she was coming down with the flu. By supper time, chest and back pain developed but Nancy said it felt more like an external rather than internal pain.
“It was not that crushing elephant on the chest pain at all,” she said.
She rested throughout the evening to “get a head start on that flu bug.”
But by 10 p.m., the pain intensified. As she attempted to make her way to the computer to “Google” her symptoms, she felt clammy and nauseated and started to vomit.
At that point, she knew she was having a heart attack. With the rural ambulance service 10 miles from their home, she and Tom decided to drive to the hospital instead of calling 911.
Nancy remembers intense pain on the journey to Kearney and then her urgent dash through the hospital doors the moment they arrived.
“Tom hardly had the car stopped, and I was walking in the door,” Nancy said. “They didn’t try to stop me. They didn’t mess around.”
The next thing Nancy remembered was doctors and nurses waking her up. Her heart had stopped, and medical staff had to perform chest compressions and shock her heart back into motion. They immediately removed the plaque and installed a stent in her artery that night.
Hindsight is 20/20
Thinking back on the events of Dec. 8, 2011, Nancy regrets not going to the doctor sooner.
“Had I gone earlier, at noon or 6 o’clock, it could have been a simple procedure,” she said.
Nancy said she had noticed a “tug” in her chest for a few years prior to her attack and wonders if it was a sign of the blockage since the symptom disappeared after her stent was installed. Previously, she had chalked it up as a sign of aging or drinking too much diet soda.
“There was a part of me that had an instinct that this isn’t right,” Nancy said. “But, I was too proud. I wasn’t confident enough in my own thoughts to get it checked out.”
She now realizes the importance of taking charge of her own health and pushing for answers when something doesn’t seem right.
“I wished I would have pushed it instead of worrying about looking foolish or like a hypochondriac,” she said. “We just can’t ever ignore symptoms.”
After Nancy’s heart attack, she participated in 12 weeks of cardiac rehab at the hospital and started a low-fat and low-sodium diet. She amped up her exercise routine, which she described as sporadic prior to her heart attack, and lost 50 pounds.
Although Nancy admits that keeping up on her exercise and healthy eating routine has been a challenge, she knows how important it is.
“God made our bodies so they can heal,” she said. “And, I can exercise and make a difference instead of saying just give me a pill, and I’ll go eat my glazed donuts and crisp meat burritos.”
She also tries to keep stress at bay by getting seven hours of sleep at night and trying not to overcommit to activities.
Her advice to others after surviving a heart attack: “Follow your instincts as far as anything you are feeling. Even if somebody says, ‘I think that’s fine.’ To have the courage to say, ‘I’m not satisfied with that. I really think we need to check it out further.’”