Doctor sheds light on condition causing heart attacks in young, healthy women

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 7:28 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 21, 2022 at 10:19 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It was the first day of the new year and Rachel Lopez had big plans for 2022.

“Newly engaged, planning a wedding. I mean, this was the happiest chapter of my life for sure,” Lopez said.

But halfway through the day, something happened.

“It came out of absolutely nowhere,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s arm began to tingle, she had jaw pain and complained of pressure in her heart. She knew the symptoms lined up with a heart attack, but they eventually subsided and she went on with her day.

Hours later, the pain returned.

“This striking pain started going through my heart. It kind of felt like a lightning bolt almost, shooting pain. At that point, I think everyone in the car knew it was time for an emergency room visit,” Lopez said.

When Lopez got to the emergency room, doctors ran all sorts of tests, which came back normal, until they got the results of her blood work, which indicated trauma to the heart.

They admitted her to the hospital, where she stayed for five days having her blood drawn every three or four hours as doctors ordered EKGS, ultrasounds, and CT scans.

“What they were about to do the following day was a heart catheter procedure, but as luck would have it, I got COVID that very night and they had to cancel all of my procedures,” Lopez said.

Doctors sent Lopez home to recover from COVID with no answers.

“When you have COVID, it can be a catch-all sort of diagnosis. It is really important that we as patients advocate and we know our bodies,” Lopez said.

Just a few days later, the debilitating heart pain returned, and Lopez’s cardiologist admitted her to the hospital where she had a heart catheter that finally brought answers.

“There was a tear in one of the arteries. There was a flap that was going back and forth because blood moves through those arteries. It was the source of all of that pain,” Lopez said.

Doctors diagnosed Lopez with spontaneous coronary artery dissection, also known as SCAD, which they say caused her heart attack on Jan. 1.

Dr. Michel Corban is a board-certified interventional cardiologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center.

“Four percent of all heart attacks are related to SCAD and in particular, up to 35 percent of heart attacks in women less than 50 years of age are related to SCAD,” Corban said.

Corban studied SCAD at the Mayo Clinic, which he said has the largest database of SCAD patients in the country.

“It affects young women, which seem to be healthy, which seem to have no other medical problems going on,” Corban said.

Corban said triggers can include uncontrolled blood pressure, genetics, intense emotional or physical stress, and pregnancy.

“A prompt and accurate diagnosis of SCAD can save your life,” Corban said.

Doctors still do not know what caused Lopez to develop SCAD and want her to avoid anything that could possibly cause another tear.

“The re-occurrence rate is high in SCAD and if you had it once you might have it again,” Corban said.

Lopez turned 34-years-old on February 10, just weeks after her diagnosis.

Before SCAD, her days were filled with high intensity workouts, a full-time job and planning her dream wedding.

The start of 2022 looks much different.

“I am not allowed to walk, I am not allowed to be in stressful situations, I am not working right now. What we are doing is just regularly checking in just week to week, monitoring my pain levels, scheduling regular EKGs,” Lopez said.

Lopez continues to feel heart pain every day, but that is not unusual for SCAD patients as the tear heals.

Now she is learning to rest and wants to remind others to do the same.

“This has definitely slowed me down in a good way. I hate the condition but love the message, and I am going to take that moving forward for sure,” Lopez said.

Doctors hope Lopez’s heart will heal on its own, and said her recovery time could range from a couple of months to a year.

If it does not heal on its own, she will need to have surgery.

Lopez is still waiting on test results to see if her genetics could have contributed to SCAD.

Corban wants people to pay close attention to their bodies, like Lopez did.

Corban said if someone has chest pain that is radiating to their neck, back, jaw or arms, they need to seek immediate medical attention.

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