Spotlight on Women's Health

Surviving a heart attack: An interview with news reporter Jennifer Donelan

February 21, 2016

Office on Women's Health Deputy Director Nicole Greene sat down with Jennifer Donelan in February to talk about women's heart health.

We've all seen the "Hollywood heart attack" on TV. It's when the victim stops what he or she is doing, clutches his or her chest, and drops to the floor. In real life, heart attacks are much different. Some women may feel a heavy pressure on their chest, while others experience severe shortness of breath, cold sweats, unfamiliar dizziness or light-headedness, or sharp pain in the neck, back, or jaw.

Jennifer Donelan, a crime reporter at ABC7/WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., had a heart attack at the age of 36 and is sharing her story in honor of American Heart Month. She wants women to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and understand the importance of calling 911 if they think they're having one.

Jennifer Donelan is a crime reporter at WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. In 2010, when she was 36 years old, she survived a heart attack following a live report for the evening news. Luckily, she received medical treatment right away. It saved her life. Now, Jennifer is an advocate for women's heart disease, spreading the word about prevention, signs and symptoms, and recovery.

Expand all
|
Collapse all

Q: Before your heart attack, was heart disease something you ever worried about?

A: I never worried about heart disease. I was completely focused on breast cancer. Breast cancer runs in my family — my maternal grandmother died of the disease. I was really good about performing monthly breast self-exams, and I started getting mammograms at age 30 because of my family history. When I had a heart attack at 36 years old, I was shocked. It was when I was lying in a hospital bed that I found out heart disease — not breast cancer — is the number one killer of women.

Q: Did you have any risk factors for heart disease?

A: I have a family history, but I never understood its importance or thought about it as a risk factor. My grandfather and uncle both had heart attacks, but I never related that to my own risk since they were men. My grandmother also had angina, and my great-grandmother died of a heart attack.

In addition to family history, I had several other risk factors. I smoked, I did not work out, and I was constantly stressed. I never thought about the impact all those things were having on my heart, especially the stress. I'm a crime reporter, and my days are filled to the brim with stress — people's grief, people's worst moments — and I'm against a clock every single day working to share those stories on air. Stress was normal for me.

Q: Will you tell us what symptoms you experienced and what symptoms women should watch out for?

A: Women often have different symptoms than men, and it's very important that women understand that. I, fortunately, had the classic symptoms of a heart attack. The day of my heart attack was one of the most stressful days of my life. I remember feeling like my heart was in my throat all day. For eight hours straight, I was racing back and forth — trying to get information, trying to get video footage, trying to make my deadline. I had the heart attack when the day had ended and I could finally relax. My chest started getting really tight; I started sweating, I got nauseous, and I threw up. I knew something was wrong, but when my left arm went numb, that's when I really feared it was a heart attack. I had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection and my artery literally tore like a piece of fabric.

Most women won't have the symptoms I did. Instead, it can be a feeling of sudden exhaustion or exhaustion that lasts for days; pain in the jaw, shoulder, or back; and it can also feel like they have indigestion. As women, we really have to educate ourselves on the variety of symptoms.

Q: What advice do you have for women?

A: My number one piece of advice — and I cannot say this enough — is to call 911 when you think you're having a heart attack. Women don't make that call, because they don't want to bother anyone, they have guests over, they have to get the kids from school, or it's just not a good time to go to the hospital. But that means they aren't getting the emergency care that they need, right then and there, and they risk dying. I really want women to change that thinking and put themselves first.

Now, if I think something is wrong or I feel like something is off, I go to the hospital right away. In fact, I've been hospitalized four times since my heart attack. I don't apologize for it or feel embarrassed about it. It's my life on the line. Women may be worried about taking care of everyone else, but if they're not here, they won't be able to take care of their loved ones at all.

I also think every woman should consider seeing a cardiologist, just to have a onetime, baseline appointment. Cardiologists look at your body differently than your primary care doctor. They can tell you everything that you need to know about your heart health.

Q: What was life like after you got home from the hospital? Was there anything you found challenging and you think may be helpful for other women to know?

A: The one thing that I never expected was to be filled with a debilitating, paralyzing fear. No one prepared me for that. I was afraid to go to sleep. I was afraid to walk. I was afraid to move. I was afraid to be alone, because I had no idea if I was going to have another heart attack.

I was also afraid to drive. I remember being in the car for the first time after my heart attack, and someone honked their horn. It made me jump. I was terrified that the sudden surge of adrenaline would give me another heart attack.

I think it's helpful for women to know that this fear exists. But they're not alone. It took an entire community rallying around me to overcome my fear. My mother moved in with me. When she moved out, other people, including my friends and boyfriend, would stay with me. As women, we're afraid to ask for emotional assistance. But we should. It's okay to ask friends and family for help, and we shouldn't be afraid to get therapy if we need it.

Q: Did you make any lifestyle changes to improve your health?

A: Definitely. When you have a life-threatening experience, it changes you. I work out now, and I quit smoking, which was hard. I also manage my stress better. On the day of my heart attack, when I was feeling so stressed, I never thought to myself, "Calm down, you're entering a danger zone, you've been too stressed for too long." I've completely changed that. Now when I feel myself getting stressed, red flags go up. I immediately sit down and start breathing deeply.

Lastly, I've changed my priorities. I love my career and can't imagine doing anything else — it was my dream to be a news reporter — but a job is a job. I have learned my limitations. For example, I turn down opportunities to report on certain topics, like the recent blizzard in D.C., because I can't have that adrenaline rush. I also can't put myself in a position where I may not be able to receive emergency care if I need it.

I don't know when my last day is. I don't know if I'll have a heart attack again. So now I worry more about my nephews growing up without their aunt.

Q: Do you have advice for other women who may be struggling to make similar changes?

A: The struggle to be healthy and stay healthy is real. I know it's a struggle for so many women. It's a struggle for me. What works for me, and I think can work for other women, is to take it day by day. When I think too far in the future, it becomes overwhelming. Instead, I tell myself, "Today, I'm going to go to the gym. Today, I am going to eat a salad. Today, I am going to do some yoga." When I think about it in terms of small steps, it becomes more manageable. I know that eventually it will become a habit.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

A: Heart disease is the number one killer of women. It's preventable. We can control it. It should be at the forefront of all of our minds. But for some reason, there is still a disconnect. Perhaps it's because heart disease isn't visible. When a woman walks down the street, you can't tell she has had a heart attack, so it doesn't resonate. But trust me, you do not want this disease. You do not want to worry about it. So do everything you can to prevent it. Take care of yourself first. Then you will be able to take care of everyone else.

To learn the seven most common symptoms of a heart attack for women, visit our Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat. website.

To learn more about how to lower your risk for heart disease, visit The Heart Truth®.

The Heart Truth® is a registered trademark, and Red Dress℠ is a service mark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Need help quitting smoking? Go to http://women.smokefree.gov/ for the tools you need.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.