Gratitude Stories - Michelle

Women’s Cardiac Expertise at the Right Time

“From the moment I saw the sunrise after my surgery, I knew I had to live this life different,” says Michelle MacDonald, recalling the morning after she suffered a “widow making” cardiac event.

Michelle's gratitude story

Michelle, a very active mom, wife, and first grade teacher, was the last person anyone would suspect to have a cardiac condition – even her PCP. But the symptoms she was experiencing for a few weeks prior to that fateful date in September 2022, were symptoms of a heart condition.

“I wouldn't say that I ignored symptoms, but I didn’t exactly know what to look for,” she explains and describes being a little out of breath and rubbing her chest after a walk. “It felt like I worked out too hard or that it was heartburn because it didn’t register as pain.” She also had jaw pain – a common but often unknown heart attack symptom in women – but didn’t connect the dots because she had no risk factors for cardiac disease.

Thankfully, she didn’t ignore her watch’s alert that her resting heart rate was high and called 911.

“If my husband had been at work that evening, I would have just gone to bed hoping to feel better in the morning,” Michelle says, “but I probably wouldn’t have woken up.”

Emergency responders brought her to the emergency department at The Miriam Hospital, where initially, they weren’t sure what was happening, but attending physician Taneisha Wilson, MD, reassured her she was in the right place.

Michelle was having a heart attack, but the cause was not a common cholesterol blockage. She had a condition called SCAD – spontaneous coronary artery dissection – where the lining to the artery tears and causes a blockage. It mostly affects women in their 40s and 50s without the common cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.  For Michelle, the symptoms she had been experiencing were a result of tearing vessel and the slowing of blood flow, ultimately blocking the artery and causing her heart attack. 

By the time Michelle reached the cardiac cath lab, her artery was 98 percent blocked.

With his experience and expertise, interventional cardiologist Douglas Burtt, MD, placed two stents to clear the blockage. Dr. Burtt explains, “we don’t always place stents for SCAD but in Michelle’s case it was our best option to restore blood flow.”

Initially it was thought she could go back to work as a teacher, but upon meeting with Katharine French, MD, director of the women’s cardiac center, it was recommended that Michelle allow her body time to heal. “My job as a first-grade teacher is anything but sedentary, so going to cardiac rehab was an important step in getting me back to physical activity in a safe way,” says Michelle.  

“We don't have any data to suggest that physical activity increases the risk of her having another SCAD event. However, those older perceptions that all activity is bad and increases your risk for SCAD still permeate amongst the community and professionals. It’s important to have a team caring for her that understands that there's no data to suggest that she now can't exercise,” explains Dr. French.

Today, Michele is back in the classroom and enjoying an active life, while following doctors’ orders, and taking nothing for granted.

“I’m so grateful for my family, my friends, and my school community for all their support along this journey. I take every opportunity to educate people about heart health and don’t let any opportunity pass me by,” says Michelle. “I really, truly believe that Miriam gave me a second chance and I am grateful.”

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