Active and healthy, Jennifer Hill isn’t the kind of person who has a heart attack. But she did.
When Jennifer Hill of Yarmouth started having “a weird, subtle, hard-to-describe feeling” in her body every few days, it was easy for her to ignore it.
She was a fit, busy, 43-year-old wife and mom juggling a full-time job in human resources for L.L. Bean with coaching her two daughters’ sports teams. She skied, ran, cycled, kayaked, ate a diet rich in vegetables and low in processed foods and sugar.
So, she reasoned, those annoying feelings she was experiencing had to be nothing. She chalked them up to a poor night’s sleep or something she’d eaten. Only in hindsight, after having a heart attack in July 2016, did Hill realize what a mistake it had been to disregard what her body was telling her.
“Looking back, I can see that I had the first symptoms a couple of months before, but it wasn’t one of those things you could easily pinpoint,” she explains. “The feeling was just a strange overall body sensation, tough to put into words.”
As the sensation continued, she tried to detect a pattern, realizing it didn’t happen much at work, where she was more sedentary, and it did occur on weekends, when she was active. Eventually, though, it started happening “anytime I was exerting myself—even getting up at work to go to the printer or the bathroom.”
“I noted one night that my resting heartbeat on my Fitbit was really high, like as if I were out for a run or a jog—130 instead of 60.”
The next evening, as she was loading kayaks onto her car, she didn’t feel well.
“I got agitated with the girls and went inside to calm down, and that’s when I got the telltale signs. I started sweating, felt my heart palpitating. And then pain in my hand. And my jaw started to hurt. I told my husband he needed to take me to the ER, that something was really not right. In my mind, it wasn’t a heart issue even then though.”
At Maine Medical Center, tests showed the presence of troponin, a protein released into the bloodstream when there is damage to the heart. She was admitted to the cardiac wing and awakened at 4 a.m. by a cardiologist telling her she’d had a “pretty significant” heart attack.
“I was just in disbelief, in shock,” Hill recalls.
She underwent a cardiac catheterization to diagnose the cause of the attack but had a reaction and the procedure had to be halted. A second catheterization two days later revealed 80 percent blockage in her anterior descending artery and a fairly rare kind of plaque called fibrous plaque (not the type typically seen with high cholesterol). A stent was inserted, and she was diagnosed with fibromuscular dysplasia, an artery-narrowing condition that typically affects the brain or kidneys and not the heart.
Leaving the hospital a week after she first arrived, Hill says she felt a lot of apprehension.
“There is nothing to control or prevent this from happening, and it was a lot to process. I was thinking, how will I exercise? What if this happens again?”
Going to Maine Med’s Turning Point cardiac rehab center in Scarborough eased a lot of her anxiety.
“I was hooked up and monitored so that I was working out in a very controlled environment. It gave me peace of mind that my heart was doing OK when I was exercising, and after a few weeks, I graduated.”
She returned to work just a week after leaving the hospital. Soon after, L.L. Bean happened to be sponsoring a heart walk to raise money for the American Heart Association. Hill added her story to a fundraising web page, and to her surprise, she quickly raised $1,000. Since then, she’s been spreading her message at AHA and other events.
“In the beginning, there was a kind of PTSD. Any little thing I felt, I’d be completely scared that something was happening. But that has subsided. I feel great now. Sometimes it’s like nothing even happened, which is strange. But I’m reminded when taking my medications every morning and night.”
Patricia McCarthy is a longtime writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).