On August 18th, 2020, retired social worker, Jodi Kennedy, 64, suffered a “widow maker” heart attack. So called because, occurring when a major artery in the heart is blocked, the widow maker is all too often fatal.
Two weeks earlier, on a routine neighborhood walk, Jodi had experienced a burning sensation at the base of her throat. While it got her attention, the tingly feeling wasn’t painful and quickly passed, and figuring it was indigestion or something, Jodi shrugged it off. She thought she was fine. She wasn’t.
"Dr. Chen explained that I have the genetic condition that causes high cholesterol,” says Jodi.
“I Think I’m Having a Heart Attack”
“On Monday night, August 17th, I’d uneventfully gone to bed,” says Jodi, a Selden resident and mom to two adult sons, Matthew and James. “I woke up during the night feeling a bit ‘off’ and the burning sensation at the back of my throat was back — something just wasn’t right — but I fell back asleep again.”
The next morning, about to have coffee with Matthew, the burning sensation along with the ‘off’ feeling from the night before, returned. Again, the sensations passed.
Twenty minutes later, however, Jodi’s symptoms reappeared. And this time, they were not going to be shrugged off.
“I was gripped by a sharp pain radiating from my neck all the way down through my left arm,” says Jodi. “The stinging at the bottom of my throat came back and I began vomiting and sweating heavily. At that point, I called out to Matthew, ‘Something is wrong. Dial 9-1-1. I think I’m having a heart attack!’”
The Stony Brook Team
Events now moved in rapid succession. The ambulance showed up within minutes and transported Jodi to the Emergency Department (ED) of Stony Brook University Hospital.
Arriving at the ED, a team of heart specialists led by On Chen, MD, an interventional cardiologist and Director of Stony Brook’s Advanced Center for Lipid (Cholesterol) Disorders, was waiting for Jodi. “There was what looked like a huge semicircle of maybe a dozen doctors and nurses rushing over to me and I thought, “’My God, how lucky I am to be here at Stony Brook!’” recalls Jodi.
Dr. Chen and his team, collaborating at full speed, rushed Jodi into the Cardiac Catheterization (Cath) Lab where the full spectrum of cardiovascular diagnostic and treatment procedures are performed.
It Was a ‘Widow Maker’
There, doctors discovered that Jodi’s left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery — the one that supplies most of the blood to the heart — was 95 percent blocked. The survival rate is so low for patients experiencing this type of heart attack, that it has come to be known as, the ‘widow maker.’
“Dr. Chen was straight and to the point,” says Jodi. “He told me I was indeed having a massive heart attack and they had to work fast to save my life.”
Only 45 minutes elapsed from the time Jodi arrived at the ED until she was diagnosed and treated. A short time later she was comfortably settled into the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) where her vital signs were closely observed via telemetry (high-tech monitoring).
“I felt fine after the procedure,” smiles Jodi. “Once the blockage was gone, I felt immediate relief — completely normal.”
Jodi arrived at Stony Brook on Tuesday and was home again on Thursday.
“Jodi is extremely fortunate that she did not have an adverse outcome,” says Dr. Chen. “For every minute a blockage in an artery stops blood flow, more of the heart muscle dies. If we open the artery right away heart muscle damage can be minimal and most patients can go back to their regular lives.”
Connecting the Cholesterol Dots
It was at this time that Jodi first heard the words familial hypercholesterolemia or, more simply, FH, a genetic disorder that results in a dangerous buildup of LDL or "bad" cholesterol. Included in the more than 70 million Americans for whom abnormal cholesterol levels are a key risk factor for heart disease, nearly one in 250 has FH, 90 percent of whom are undiagnosed.
“Dr. Chen explained that I have the genetic condition that causes high cholesterol,” says Jodi. “The thing is, I always knew that heart disease ran in my family… my father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather all died of heart attacks by the time they were just 51- or 52-years-old. But, in truth, I thought it was only the men who were affected.
“Importantly, too, despite being aware for years that my cholesterol levels were high, my doctor had never made a big deal of it, so I had pretty much just pooh-poohed it.”
Jodi advises, “Watch your cholesterol; if you smoke, quit; and, if you are overweight, lose the pounds. And learn your genetic history.”
A Wakeup Call
Jodi considers her heart attack to have been a wakeup call. "Believe me, there's nothing like learning that you came this close to dying to motivate you to make some changes," says Jodi. “Working with Dr. Chen, I have learned how to effectively manage my cholesterol through drugs that include statins and a new state-of-the-art class of medication called a PCSK9 inhibitor (Repatha).
“I also walk as often as I can, get my blood checked regularly and follow a diet that features mostly fruit, vegetables, healthy fats and lean meats and seafood.”
At her most recent checkup, Jodi’s cholesterol numbers — overall levels had been going from a high of 300 down to 134 and LDL levels dropping down to 39 — the best they have ever been. “I was so happy to hear this news that I almost cried in the doctor’s office,” says Jodi. “Frankly, I was amazed. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.”
As a staunch advocate for heart health, especially the subtler symptoms of women’s heart disease, including, “just not feeling right,” Jodi advises, “Watch your cholesterol; if you smoke, quit; and, if you are overweight, lose the pounds. And learn your genetic history Many people with FH never find out they have it until it’s too late.”
With a Grateful Heart
"I might not be here today if I hadn’t gotten to Stony Brook Hospital immediately,” shares Jodi. “My guardian angels were right there guiding me.
“I’m so grateful for Dr. Chen — he saved my life. But everyone at Stony Brook was kind and caring and worked as a team to save me. It is with a grateful heart that I say, thank you for all you do, to each and every one of them.”
Put Your Heart Health First
If you are at risk or if someone in your family has a heart condition, it’s important to schedule a visit with a cardiologist for preventive care. Our cardiologists can help you improve your heart health and/or prevent the progression of cardiovascular disease with a comprehensive heart disease risk assessment and treatment options.
Do something good for your own heart health by taking a free heart health assessment now.