Virginia H Just In Time - Routine Checkup Saves Woman's Life

"Don’t ignore symptoms if something doesn’t feel right. Go to the doctor and get tested. Your life could depend on it.”

Like many women, Virginia Haines, 73, a Freeholder in Ocean County, didn’t think she was at a significant risk for heart problems. Although she was past menopause, which raises the risk of heart disease due to declining estrogen levels, there was little heart disease in her family history. Also, she exercised every morning before work, which helps to maintain heart health.

In July 2019, Virginia was shocked to learn that she had a serious blockage in one of her heart’s arteries. “I’m very fortunate that I didn’t have a heart attack,” she says. If Virginia hadn’t had a routine appointment with Leonard Di Pisa, MD, a cardiologist at Community Medical Center (CMC) and a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group, the dots might not have been connected between her symptoms and her heart.

Leonard Di Pisa, MD
Leonard Di Pisa, MD

Vague Symptoms

Virginia had begun to experience shortness of breath and was relying more and more on her inhaler. “I had told my allergist about seeing ‘Jersey Boys’ at the Hard Rock Café and walking up the escalator stairs,” says Virginia. “By the time I got to the top, I had a strange feeling in my chest. I had had the same sensations when I was visiting a friend in Costa Rica and walking through the rainforest. I was using my inhaler a lot to catch my breath.”

Breathlessness can signal that a heart attack is about to happen—or is already happening—in a woman. “Chest discomfort and pain aren’t always the norm for women, as they are for most men,” says Dr. Di Pisa. “For women, heart attack symptoms are usually fatigue and shortness of breath. Also, women may complain of nausea and increased sweating.” Women may also experience uncomfortable pressure or fullness in the center of their chest and pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach. Looking back, Virginia recalls having jaw pain in the middle of the night.

Virginia saw Dr. Di Pisa a few days after seeing her allergist. She told him about her recent symptoms, which prompted him to order an exercise stress test. Performed while a patient is walking on a treadmill, the test shows how well your heart responds when it’s working at its hardest. Virginia failed the test. “I couldn’t even go five minutes,” she says.

“Virginia’s symptoms and the positive stress test suggested that she had an obstruction in one of her coronary arteries,” says Dr. Di Pisa. He recommended that Virginia undergo angioplasty, in which a catheter—a thin, flexible tube with a small inflatable balloon at the tip—is threaded through an artery in the groin or wrist to the site of the blockage. The balloon is then inflated to compress the plaque against the artery wall, allowing blood to flow more easily. Usually, a stent is inserted to prevent the artery from collapsing.

A Complete Recovery

The procedure was scheduled for the following week, and it went off without a hitch, says Sanjiv Sobti, MD, the CMC interventional cardiologist and member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group who performed it. Virginia spent one night in the hospital and was back to her usual activities—including the important work of helping to govern Ocean County—just a few days later.

Sanjiv Sobti, MD
Sanjiv Sobti, MD

Because the blockage was discovered and treated before Virginia had a heart attack—which occurs when pieces of plaque break off and block an artery, stopping blood flow—her heart was not damaged. That allowed her to make a complete recovery. “I feel much better,” she says. “I’ve been able to pass the breathing tests my doctor gave me, and I haven’t needed my inhaler at all.” Virginia is also back to exercise, walking early in the morning and working out with weights. “She will have to take two antiplatelet medications, which prevent clots from forming, for a year,” says Dr. Sobti. “Otherwise, the stent could close.”

Virginia has an excellent prognosis, says Dr. Di Pisa. “Once the stents are inserted, they’re good for a lifetime,” he says, adding that getting women to talk about heart attack symptoms is often challenging because they may not think they’re important. “You have to listen to their stories,” says Dr. Di Pisa. “If you notice they start to hesitate, you dig deeper.”

Virginia, who had chalked up her symptoms to allergies, is grateful that Dr. Di Pisa pressed her. She also has high praise for Dr. Sobti and the other health care providers who treated her during her stay at CMC. “They were absolutely wonderful, from the preoperative testing to the time I was discharged,” she says.

Today, Virginia has a message for other women who find themselves in her shoes. “I tell them, ‘Don’t ignore symptoms if something doesn’t feel right. Go to the doctor and get tested. Your life could depend on it.’”

Your heart doesn’t beat just for you. Get it checked. For more information, visit our Heart and Vascular Care page. To reach a Community Medical Center cardiac specialist, call 888-724-7123.