Sandra Howard, Jewell Lifrage and Katrina Denson all woke up one day feeling unbelievably bad.
Sandra knew what was happening and rushed for the aspirin bottle after being hit by a horrible pain in her arm that just kept getting worse.
A sudden and violent attack of nausea brought Jewell out of a sound sleep. Believing her gallbladder was acting up, she downed some over-the-counter nausea medicine and fell back to sleep for five hours.
And Katrina thought she’d been hit with the migraine of all migraines. Not wanting to miss her 13-year-old’s basketball practice, she literally stumbled to her SUV with a pounding head, drooping left side and eyes barely able to open.
All three women who are dedicating their lives to nursing others back to health woke to life-threatening and life-changing medical events. Sandra and Jewell survived heart attacks. Katrina a stroke.
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And they were not alone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 735,000 Americans have heart attacks each year.
February, American Heart Month, puts the spotlight on heart disease and stroke, the leading killer of women in this country.
In hopes of helping others, Sandra, who did not have any permanent heart damage, and Jewell, who did, share their cautionary tales, along with Katrina.
Sandra’s story: “It was like a boulder came across the room and hit me dead-center in the chest.”
Nov. 6, 2015, was a day Sandra Howard, 68, will never forget.
The mother of two and 25-year nurse woke with a severe pain in her arm that she tried to shake but couldn’t.
“When I stood up, it was like a boulder came across the room and hit me dead-center in the chest,” Sandra said. “It just radiated like a starburst over my chest. In my mind, I was thinking I am having a heart attack.”
Her training as a nurse at Piedmont Fayette Hospital kicked in. She raced for an aspirin. Then she purposely started panting like a dog, something that stimulated blood flow and brought her some pain relief. “It was the closest thing I could do to self CPR,” Sandra said.
She dressed quickly and drove a quarter of a mile to the closest fire station. The firefighters were out on a call, but they quickly raced to meet Sandra with nitroglycerin for under her tongue and an IV for her arm.
At Piedmont Henry Hospital, the heart attack was confirmed, and a stent was inserted to address a 99 percent blocked the left artery.
“The doctor, looking up, told me were it not for heaven above and my quick thinking, it could have been a very different day,” she said.
Sandra said she now realizes that she and other women don’t always heed the warning signs. In her case, she’d been experiencing shortness of breath and pain for about a year when she walked.
“I did mention it to the charge nurse, and she really encouraged me to go to the ER,” Sandra said. “But I felt like I needed to do some other things first.”
Sandra says she “was very, very fortunate” to have come through without any permanent heart damage.
Her recovery was quick. She was back at work a week later and given the OK to resume all activities, except heavy lifting, within six weeks.
Sandra said she had some residual effects – tiredness and medicine-induced weight gain— but she stayed active and pushed through it.
She gives credit to Piedmont, where she’s worked for nearly eight years, for being so proactive with training.
“It saved my life knowing and acting on what I had learned,” said Sandra, who was at Northside Hospital for 17 years before joining Piedmont Fayette, where she’s currently a NICU nurse.
Sandra’s now the first to urge colleagues not to wait but to respond immediately to potential warning signs. She also promotes baseline heart screenings at age 35 and aspirin at the first sign of a potential heart attack.
“I cannot stress that enough – take that aspirin,” Sandra said. “If it’s not a heart attack, it’s not going to hurt you.”
Jewell: “My DNA was just waiting for the occasion to act.”
Jewell Lifrage, an ER nurse at WellStar Kennestone Hospital, hadn’t expected to be up early on her day off. But there she was awake at 5 a.m. on a cool October day and as nauseated as she’d ever been in her life.
“All I could think was this must be my gallbladder,” she said.
A dose of anti-nauseous medicine knocked her out for five hours. When she woke again, she was extremely fatigued. Her abdomen felt full. Her face was pale.
“But I never had any pain,” Jewell said.
She decided she should be checked out. She drove to the nearest urgent care and requested an EKG.
From there, it was onto Kennestone, where colleagues in the emergency room were waiting. Ironically, they relied on a myocardial bag that Jewell herself had developed to give medical staff faster access to all the drugs needed to treat a potential heart attack victim.
Cardiologists at Kennestone inserted a stent to open a clogged coronery artery, but the heart was already permanently damaged.
Jewell developed congestive heart failure and had other complications that required her to be on cardiac medications and go to cardiac rehab two to three times a week.
Her greatest fear was what would happen to her job. But within two months, she was back at work in Kennestone’s emergency department, where she’s now been for 30 years.
“It was essential I return to fulltime employment,” Jewell said. “That validated me as a whole person.”
October 2017 marked 10 years since her heart attack.
Jewell adheres to the good habits she learned in rehab, including walking daily, watching her salt intake, staying away from red meat and drinking water instead of carbonated drinks.
“Throughout all of this, the support from my family, friends and co-workers was significant,” she said.
Jewell stresses that females tend to have more gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, fullness of stomach, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
These symptoms are not always recognized and/or related to a heart attack, and thus, result in greater risk of complications and death, she said.
Jewell points out that the night before her heart attack she and her husband went out to dinner with company.
Both of Jewell’s parents had cardiovascular disease causing cardiac problems and stroke.
“My DNA was just waiting for the occasion to act,” she said.
Katrina: “I think a lot of it was stress — burning the candle sometimes 16 hours a day and working very, very hard.”
On Feb. 13, 2011, Katrina celebrated her 40th birthday with 200 of her closest family and friends.
One month later, she was worrying whether she’d live to mark another birthday.
Katrina woke up Saturday, March 11, 2011, with what the longtime migraine sufferer felt was her worst headache ever.
“It woke me out of my sleep,” she said.
Katrina sat up and immediately noticed that her left side was weak. She tried to stand but couldn’t and sat back down.
Her mind started racing trying to figure out what was going on. “I’m thinking: Could this be a brain tumor?” Katrina said, noting that, at 40, she didn’t have problems with weight, hypertension or cholesterol.
She concluded that “it just had to be a migraine” and so decided she would keep going, even though she was also having difficulty opening her eyes and couldn’t even call out to her daughter for help.
Katrina said she popped a couple of Excedrin Migraine, managed to wash at the sink and dress.
When daughter Kierra saw her, she pointed out that Mom’s face was doing “weird things – twitching or drooping or something.”
Katrina fell as she tried to get in her SUV. But she pressed on, dropping Kierra at practice at Pace Academy and heading to the store for a caffeinated drink, crackers and more Excedrin. Her demeanor and drooping face caught people’s attention at the store and after she returned to the school, still with the intent of watching basketball practice.
“By this time, I was vomiting profusely,” she said.
Katrina called a colleague at Northside who’d also had migraines for years. When Katrina told her what was happening, the colleague urged her to get to the emergency room, a first in her 40 years.
At the hospital, she was still insisting it was just a bad migraine. Later, it was confirmed that she had a stroke.
“I’m crying because I think I’m going to die or have a lot of weakness like you see in stroke patients,” Katrina said.
The weakness was gone in a day, but Katrina lost her ability to taste for six months, which allowed her to lose some weight.
“I did not require any rehab, and I was back at work in three weeks,” she said.
Doctors couldn’t determine the origins of the stroke. But the event was a life-changer for Katrina.
She now makes sure she eats healthy, is at exercise boot camp five days a week and builds time into her busy schedule as a nurse manager for rest and vacations.
Since the stroke, she’s had no migraines, which in the past were typically debilitating for three days out of the month.
“It kind of fixed me,” said Katrina, who had no family history of heart disease or stroke.
Katrina, who served four years in the Army Nurse Corps, has been abroad on mission trips as part of her post-stroke commitment to escape Atlanta at least once a month.
“I think a lot of it was stress — burning the candle sometimes 16 hours a day and working very, very hard,” she said. “I say I had a divine intervention – telling me I had to take a break.”
About our subjects
Sandra began her career as an emergency room tech at Griffin Spalding; she spent 12 years as assistant dean of admissions at Oglethorpe University, while also working part-time at Northside Hospital. She left Oglethorpe for full-time job at Northside and decided to pursue a degree in applied science at Perimeter/DeKalb (2005). She received her certification in surgical technology and left Northside after 17 years for fulltime job at Piedmont-Fayette in 2010 as a surgical tech for labor and delivery/NICU, her current job.
Jewell Caison Lifrage
Jewell holds her Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Biology and has been employed at WellStar Regional Medical Center in Marietta since 1987. She previously worked at McLeod Medical Center in Florence, S.C. and Williamsburg County Hospital, in Kingstree. She received the 2007 Nursing Excellence Award at WellStar and has published several articles.
Katrina D. Denson
Katrina currently works as a clinical manager in Family Centered Care at the Women’s Center at Northside Hospital’s Atlanta campus. An Amy veteran, she has 24 years of nursing experience. As a manager, she ensures that staff is equipped to provide quality care and that patients have a great experience. Prior to joining Northside, she worked as director at South Fulton Medical Center and at Upson Regional Medical Center, as well as at OhioHealth Doctors Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.