When Anxiety Turns Out to be an Unexpected Heart Attack

Author: Leslie Toldo

Keith Brown woke up one Saturday morning in May feeling anxious.  It was something he’d felt before, but today would be much different.

“Later that morning, I had tightness in my chest, and the anxious feeling was still there. It was not easy to breathe,” Keith said. “My wife said, ‘We’re going to the emergency room.’”

It was there that Keith learned he had suffered a heart attack.  The McLaren Flint cardiac team discovered a 90 percent blockage in Keith’s left main coronary artery– often called the “widow-maker.”  He was completely floored by the news.

“I don’t have diabetes or high blood pressure. I never smoked. The only thing I had was high cholesterol,” Keith said.  “Both of my parents had heart disease, but they both smoked and had diabetes.”

After getting the blockage under control with a stent placed by McLaren Flint Cardiologist Dr. Robert Cleary, Keith was in the hospital for four days. It was an experience he said he will never forget.

“All of these other patients in the cardiac care unit had gone through open heart surgery. It was scary to see,” Keith said.

That stark reality was soon overshadowed by a sense of hope.  It came when Keith started working with the cardiac rehab team

“Everyone on the rehab team was willing to work with me,“ Keith said.  “They started me out exercising for 10 minutes on different machines. I had 36 rehab sessions, and I was doing 40 minutes 3 times a week. I got to where I was looking forward to it.”

It was a big “a-ha” moment. Before the heart attack, 55-year-old Keith, like so many of us, had been telling himself he needed to get active, but life always seemed to get in the way.

“It is normally a wakeup call for our younger patients to improve their overall health and diet,” said cardiac rehab exercise physiologist Liz Birchmeier, a member of the cardiac rehab team. “They typically seem to be a little more scared and curious about their futures.”

McLaren Cardiac Rehab offers patients classes focused on nutrition, heart disease risk factors, heart medications, and heart attack symptoms, among other topics.  The team also encourages stress management. 

“I started seeing a therapist to work on my anxiety,” Keith said.

For many heart patients, mental health care can be a big part of the healing process, Liz said.

“People may not realize that the goal of cardiac rehab is to help patients with both physical and mental recovery,” Liz said. “For patients, it may be their first time experiencing a cardiac event, and it can be both scary and frustrating.”

The heart attack was terrifying for Keith and his family.  He is sharing his story in hopes other people will learn from his experience.

“If I had pushed it with my doctor or did a little more, maybe I would have found something out a lot sooner,” Keith said. “In hindsight, I was having some shortness of breath before the heart attack happened, so if you are feeling something go and get it checked out. “

If you have concerns about your heart health, see a doctor right away.  Learn more about the McLaren Flint Cardiac Care Team and services at mclaren.org/flintheart