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Heart attack warning signs you could miss

Carita Onstad called 9-1-1 when she felt the symptoms of a heart attack.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Carita Onstad, 76, was cleaning her Stevens Point apartment in early October when she had to sit down. Onstad suspected a recent bout of acid reflux was flaring up. This time, though, was different and suddenly what she thought was acid reflux turned into serious pain.

“It felt like a fist rammed right through my chest,” Onstad said. “It kept building and building. I felt like the hand was grabbing my heart and lungs and squeezing.”

Onstad realized it wasn’t acid reflux. She was having a heart attack. She called 9-1-1 and within minutes was taken to Ministry Saint Clare’s Hospital in Weston and received treatment from Marshfield Clinic Cardiologist Dan Gavrila, M.D.

“Carita was very fortunate because she started getting treatment within minutes,” Dr. Gavrila said.

Onstad laments that she didn’t recognize the warning sign. “I had no other symptoms,” she said. “I didn’t have pain in the arm or jaw that people talk about.”

A common assumption is heart attacks happen the way they are portrayed in the movies or on television. The so-called “Hollywood heart attack” shows a person with crushing chest pain falling to the floor. The reality is not all heart attack sufferers experience those symptoms or to that degree.

Some people feel they can’t catch their breath. They may break into a cold sweat. Some get sick to their stomach or feel fullness, nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain. They also may experience dizziness, fatigue, trouble with sleeping, anxiety or an impending sense of doom.

At least a third of heart attack sufferers have symptoms other than chest pain, or even no symptoms.

Leona Olkowski, 82, Rhinelander, suffered a heart attack in early July. Olkowski, who previously had an ulcer, was getting ready to hang laundry when she started having pain. Her first thought was her ulcer was flaring.

“When it happened, I remember telling my husband Ed that this is a terrible ulcer attack,” Olkowksi said. “It was the same pain in the same location when I had an ulcer before.”

Her call to 9-1-1 was lifesaving.

“Fortunately, Leona was able to call 9-1-1,” said Cardiologist Rohit Srivastava, M.D., Marshfield Clinic. “She had a completely blocked artery that developed its own bypass and a more recent 90-percent blockage that I treated with a drug-coated stent. She did very well.”

Olkowski can now recognize telltale signs of her heart problem she couldn’t recognize before her diagnosis.

“I look back and think the sign probably was that I couldn’t stand for very long, even in a line at the grocery store,” she said. “I wasn’t walking very well and I was napping or falling asleep and tired all the time.”

Women, the elderly and people with diabetes or severe kidney disease tend to have atypical symptoms. It’s important to know risk factors for heart problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, high weight and family history.

Just minutes after a heart attack, the heart muscle begins to die. Getting treatment after warning signs is critical. Damaged heart muscle can’t be repaired. A heart attack will leave a permanent scar in the heart tissue and may cause heart failure and electrical heart problems.

If you or a family member is experiencing heart attack symptoms, call 9-1-1.

Nationwide, nearly half of heart attack patients get to a hospital with help from a friend or family member, or drive themselves. Nearly half of people who die of a heart attack die before they reach a hospital.

Calling 9-1-1 offers lifesaving advantages. Lack of blood flow and heart muscle damage can cause the heart to stop beating. If you come in by ambulance, trained emergency medical personnel can restart the heart and begin treatment right away. They carry oxygen and pain relief medicine and can relay details about your condition to the emergency room while in route.

Today’s clot-busting medications and artery-opening procedures often can restore the heart’s blood flow. These treatments should be given right away, ideally within one hour after symptoms start. The more heart muscle saved, the better chance for heart attack recovery and resuming a normal life.​