Surviving a heart attack

Know the signs and save a life

Last reviewed: October 2010
Barbara Coldiron
Photograph by Mark Greenberg
Jay Shepard
Photograph by Andy Duback
Gary Terry
Three stories
Barbara Coldiron, Jay Shepard (middle), and Gary Terry each had a heart attack—but very different symptoms.
Photograph by Pete Lacker

"My chest felt tight, and my hands were tingling. I thought I had slept on them wrong. I have no heart-attack risk factors, so I felt silly calling an ambulance, but I did when I noted that my heart rate was low. I also got nauseous and threw up. Tests showed that I had a heart attack!"

Barbara Coldiron, 55, Austin, Texas

"I kept having to stop a hike when I became winded and uncomfortable with what I thought was indigestion. Looking back, I think that's when I had a heart attack. Although I continued to get out of breath easily, I didn't have my heart checked until months later. It turned out I had a moderate to severe heart attack."

Jay Shepard, 53, Essex Junction, Vt.

"I felt fine on the way to the airport that day. But I reached for my bag after clearing security and just collapsed. Fortunately, someone started CPR immediately and airport police had an AED on the scene within minutes. Their prompt response saved my life."

Gary Terry, 62, Hurst, Texas

Three people, three descriptions of a heart attack. Would you recognize one? Do you know what tests are needed to diagnose heart disease and which ones aren't? And if you've already been diagnosed, do you know which treatments are right for you and whom to see for the best care?

Those are big questions with critically important answers. Cardiovascular disease remains the No. 1 killer of men and women in the U.S., in part because heart-attack victims often don't recognize the symptoms and delay getting care. And doctors sometimes push high-tech tests and treatments when simpler measures are safer, cheaper, and at least as effective.

This report will help you recognize heart disease and learn how to treat it. And we've teamed with the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, a nonprofit organization that represents physicians who operate on the chest, to present ratings of cardiac-surgery groups based on key performance measures for heart-bypass surgery.