In 2018, Kelley Hoolihan felt like she could not possibly represent the face of women and heart disease. She was just 38, a wife and mother of three beautiful children, a high-intensity exerciser, and as she explained, at one of the happiest points in her life. Yet in June 2018, what started out as a normal Saturday dramatically changed her life.
Kelley’s morning had begun at one of the kids’ soccer games, then grabbing lunch and working with her husband on a playhouse in the backyard for the kids. But suddenly, something went terribly wrong. That day, Kelley experienced a type of heart attack called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), an increasingly recognized condition that occurs when there is a spontaneous tear in an artery that is apparently healthy. The causes of SCAD are uncertain, but it is not related to cholesterol buildup. Nearly 90 percent of SCAD patients are women and it is afflicting a growing number of women in their 40s and 50s. In fact, it is the #1 cause of heart attack among younger women.
“I was alone in the garage and bent over to pick up a 2 x 4. I felt a very hard hit almost to my chest,” said Kelley. “It felt like somebody punched me really hard in the middle of my chest. I just knew that it wasn’t right. I went inside and thought maybe I had heartburn or indigestion from eating. I took a couple of Tums, sat down on the couch, and really just tried to figure out what it was. It started to slowly radiate up into my jaw. Again, I knew that it wasn’t normal, but I had no idea what it was.”
When her husband asked after awhile whether they should head to the emergency room, she was initially hesitant given all the kids’ activities that day. He then Googled jaw pain and stressed to Kelley the need to act. After extensive questioning at the ER — particularly about anxiety and stress — an EKG and some blood samples, Kelley was shocked by what she heard.
“The doctor came in and I’ll never forget the look on her face when she told me with tears in her eyes that my heart had been under stress and that I was having a heart attack. She couldn’t believe it and admitted me right away,” said Kelley.
The next morning, an angiogram performed through her wrist revealed a tear in a branch of her left coronary artery and Kelley was diagnosed with SCAD. She returned home the next day with instructions to take a daily baby aspirin, rest and ensure her wrist healed. “Everything seemed to be fine,” so she could never possibly have imagined what would happen next.
Over the next two weeks and within the span of just five days, Kelley experienced two more terrifying SCAD episodes, with increasingly severe symptoms. First, she experienced an 80 percent blockage with a tear in her right coronary artery, followed by a 100 percent blockage in the same artery that required four stents. That last time, Kelley remembers a near-death experience of passing outside her body and seeing a bright light, and said she was diagnosed with some severe PTSD after the trauma of her experiences.
A year later, Kelley said her heart looks great and there is no damage. She continues to work on her mental well-being and has found support through her doctors, a cardiac rehab program that focuses on mental aspects as well as physical aspects, a global SCAD Facebook page, and also a Minnesota SCAD page where she has connected personally with other SCAD survivors. In the summer of 2019, building on her past career in event planning, Kelley said she felt “very pulled” to accept the position of the planning organizer for the Minnesota SCADaddle 5K and Reunion event, which provides a supportive community for survivors and their families as well as raised more than $40,000 for SCAD research.
“I think maybe the hardest part about SCAD is there’s just not enough research out there to tell us definitively, ‘Take this medicine. Do this. Don’t do this in order to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,’” said Kelley. “There’s a different cocktail of information that we all get, and we all are very, very different as far as what happened to us, what our experience was, and, of course, the outcome of that. It’s all very different. It’s so imperative that those of us that have had this continue to talk about it, and ask for help, and ask for research so that those in the future maybe will have more and better answers.”
She continued, “Now that I’m a year-plus out, I have come to realize that I’m OK. I’m educating people. I really want to continue to do that so that the next woman who walks in the emergency room isn’t questioned about anxiety. She’s listened to. She’s heard and she is getting the help that she needs.”
Through the Penny Anderson Women’s Cardiovascular Center, Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation® research physicians are committed to continue their groundbreaking work in studying various heart conditions, such as SCAD, that often disproportionately affect women, or only affect women.