She Had A Heart Attack. For Real.

Thorson Family

There’s power in knowledge, and 38-year-old heart attack survivor Jennifer Thorson is determined to share her story—and help raise awareness—whenever and however she can.

“It’s important for women to know that the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can vary widely,” she says. “It’s not the old TV image of a person clutching his or her chest and falling down.”

Jen’s symptoms included a sharp, unrelenting pain in the middle of her back (between her shoulder blades) that spread down her arms to the palms of her hands and breaking out in a cold sweat—uncomfortable and painful, yes, but not alarming enough for her to call 911. She was only 37 at the time of the attack—young, healthy, active. She popped some Tums and Advil and hoped the pain would go away. She was training for a marathon and didn’t, in her wildest dreams, think she was having a heart attack.

But she did, and she’s living proof that it can happen to anyone.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, and we should suspect and rule out a heart attack whenever a woman doesn’t feel right,” she says. “Trust your body and your instincts,
call 911, and put your health first.”

‘A Different Me’

Jen realizes how lucky she is to be alive for her husband, Scott Tonneson, and her sons, Owen and Noah, precisely because she didn’t trust her intuition and call 911. She did what too many women would do in her situation—she waited it out, suffered through the night (she thought the pain was caused by acid reflux or a pinched nerve in her back), then drove herself to the ER the following morning so as not to trouble anyone else.  Once at the hospital, she even waited patiently in line to fill out triage forms.

Her blood pressure and pulse were checked (normal), and she had an x-ray, CT, and echocardiogram (all normal). With a family history of heart disease, high cholesterol, and increasing pain in her back, Jen insisted they keep testing. “I knew something was seriously wrong and I wasn’t going home,” she says.

When the blood tests came back from the lab, showing elevated cardiac enzymes, there was finally something to go on.

“It was those positive and escalating results that landed me in the cath lab for an angiogram,” she explains. “It was only after the surgery was over—blockage removed, stent installed—that I learned I had had a heart attack.”

And on that day, Jen says she began her “new life” with heart disease. She started a blog called “My Life, in Red” to keep track of all she was learning, reflect, and share updates with friends and family. After finishing cardiac rehab she joined ExerCare Fitness Center at United Hospital (where she now works out with a personal trainer), began her daily regimen of taking 14 pills a day, stopped eating things like butter, red meat, alfredo sauce, and frosting (and drinking Diet Coke), and began experimenting with delicious heart-healthy recipes.

She also made it her mission to learn about heart disease and share that information with others.  

“Making changes and learning about my disease—and speaking out about it to help others—is very empowering. It gives me a sense of control and peace of mind, which in those first months after the heart attack were in short supply.”

Jen exercises an hour or more five days a week, de-stresses through yoga, and is currently training for the 2012 Twin Cities Marathon. When she feels a twinge or pain, she stops. She listens to her body now. She knows her limits.

What may have changed most, though, is how she prioritizes her life.   

“Having a heart attack has changed so much for me. It has deepened my sense of gratitude in the most profound ways. I am more grateful for people, opportunities, and moments than I ever have been before.

I am actually less stressed now that heart disease has forced a re-ordering of priorities in my life.
My priorities are health, family, helping others, and joy. Yes, there’s work and day-to-day living, but not a day goes by that I don’t realize I’m lucky to be here.”

Jen says she’s “still me” in many ways—she’s a mom, wife, daughter, friend, colleague, distance runner— just as she was before the heart attack.

“But I’m a different me now. Your life does change if you have heart disease. And my life has changed for the better.”