Heart attacks are no laughing matter

by Karen Topakian

First of all if you’re having one it would probably hurt too much. To laugh.

This past Sunday when I thought I was having one. A heart attack. I wasn’t laughing. I was too busy sweating from the sharp pain and burning sensation shooting across my chest.

Peg and I were hiking in the late morning above Baker Beach. Heading to the Golden Gate Bridge. 

When I told her about the pain. Which grew with every footfall and every breath. We stopped hiking and made our way to a small roadside parking lot. Peg dumped our gear and literally ran a mile to our city car share car. Thankfully she was wearing her running shoes. But, she said later, the wrong pants.

I called the Kaiser Advice nurse to describe my symptoms.

In the past few weeks I had experienced a sharp shooting pain in my chest. Infrequent and short lived. I had read up on the symptoms of heart attacks for women.

At that moment, I didn’t have all of them. Only a few. I wondered, do you have to feel 100% of them to have a bona fide heart attack. What if you only feel 30 or 40% of them? Does it still count? Kind of like getting on C on a test instead of an A.

I thought if I am having an attack and die at least my last sight would be a majestic view of my favorite bridge. The Golden Gate. And the mighty Pacific. Unfortunately facing the bridge meant I had to stand either in the middle of the busy narrow trail or in the parking lot. Both were dangerous. What would be worse? Being trampled by runners or being flattened by tourists driving rental cars while suffering a heart attack? I moved. Removing the breath-taking expanse from my sight.

I tried not to look conspicuous as I poured out my symptoms to the nurse named Karen on my poorly connected cell phone.

Was I nauseous asked the nurse? Kind of but probably from the smell of tar from the railroad tie at my feet.

Was I sweating and clammy she asked? Yes, I answered while mopping my brow with the sleeve of my fleece jacket. I had been hiking and the exertion of hiking with severe pains in my chest increased my sweat output. Oh yes and I am a women in my mid 50’s so hot flashes still appear with some regularity.

Many thoughts swirled through my head while I described my symptoms. What if I am having a heart attack? Do I have any regrets? Only one. Not finishing my novel. Should I have quit my job and spent my time saving the world? Already spent the last 30 years doing that. And I worked for Greenpeace. What about Peg? And my family and friends? I’d miss them all terribly. An unbearable thought. If I am having a heart attack, it’s surely taking a long time. Don’t they happen suddenly? On TV and in the movies, they do.

The Advice nurse remained on the phone with me until Peg drove up to take me to the Kaiser emergency room.

Sitting was painful. Standing was painful. Attaching the seat belt across my chest was painful.

Peg drove calmly and carefully as I struggled to remove my hiking boots and heavy socks. Which were making me hotter. I reached onto the floor of the seat behind me for my animal print flats. Wincing. Yup fashion came first. Couldn’t go into the hospital wearing clunky hiking boots!

After negotiating Kaiser’s labyrinthine parking garage. I hurled the contents of my small hiking pack into the back seat and re-assembled the contents into my navy leather shoulder bag. Yup. Again fashion first. I was going in style.

The approach to the emergency room involved scaling a steep incline with and without stairs. Peg held my hand. I reminded her that if something bad happened she needed to call my sister who would tell my mother in person. Peg said she knew the drill but nobody would be calling anyone till we knew something.

Once inside, I repeated my story to the receptionist. Barely took a seat before a medical person called me in for an EKG.

Small bits of tape attached to my chest, arms and ankles cinched with alligator clips provided the tech with the receptivity to monitor my heart. Peg stood at my side.

When the tech asked if I smoked I answered No. Then spouted the litany of things I don’t consume: alcohol, tobacco, meat, drugs and very little refined sugar (my sister did remind me later of my unhealthy penchant for M&M’s). A low to no fat diet. Plenty of exercise. The tech responded, “You’re the healthiest person in here.”

Did I have a history of heart problems? No but my dad and grandfather did.

The EKG was perfect. Wow a huge relief. And my blood pressure was textbook.

So what the heck was causing this mind numbing pain in the middle of my chest?

Costochondritis, an inflammation of the chest wall.

They don’t know what causes it, when it will go away or if it will return. The only medication prescribed is Motrin, an anti-inflammatory that will reduce the pain. And that it does. The pain disappears completely. Until the Motrin wears off, then the excruciating burning throbbing sensation returns with a vengeance.

One of the Kaiser doctors said, “You did what we tell people to do. You called us because you’re a 55-year-old woman experiencing chest pain while exercising. I tell my patients, better to be embarrassed than dead.”

Truly words to live by.

In case you’re wondering about the symptoms for a heart attack in women. The Mayo Clinic has the answers

Chest discomfort or pain            This discomfort or pain can feel like a tight ache, pressure, fullness or squeezing in the center of your chest lasting more than a few minutes. This discomfort may come and go.

Upper body pain                            Pain or discomfort may spread beyond your chest to your shoulders, arms, back, neck, teeth or jaw. You may have upper body pain with no chest discomfort.           

Stomach pain                                   Pain may extend downward into your abdominal area and may feel like heartburn.          

Shortness of breath                        You may pant for breath or try to take in deep breaths. This often occurs before you develop chest discomfort.           

Anxiety                                              You may feel a sense of doom or feel as if you’re having a panic attack for no apparent reason.           

Lightheadedness                            You may feel dizzy or feel like you might pass out.        

Sweating                                           You may suddenly break into a sweat with cold, clammy skin.        

Nausea and vomiting                     You may feel sick to your stomach or vomit.


  1. karen,
    how scary this must have been. i’m glad you wrote about it.
    wishes for health & love, j

  2. Linda Kamajian says:

    Oh, Karen, just took a brief look at fb and here I see you with a heart attack scare!!!! Thank goodness you are okay. I am sorry you had to go through that frightening experience. We learned a lot because of your experience. Thanks for all the good info, as well. No heart attacks, we haven’t had enough hang out time over the past few years!

  3. Heart attacks are not funny. But, thankfully, you STILL are. Good writing, and I will be passing the wisdom of “better to be embarrassed then dead” onto clients and my peeps.

  4. Pauline says:

    Dear Karen, I’m glad you survived the ordeal! That costochondritis may cause heart attacks.
    This blog would make a great movie script and I nominate Peg for an Academy Award for Best Female Supporting Actress!

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