Photos courtesy of Gigi Campos
Gigi Campos, 35, had a heart attack in February 2023. Though she had risk factors, doctors had always told her that she was young and healthy. As she recovered, Campos joined WomenHeart, a national patient-centered organization focused on women with heart disease, to share her experience with cardiac arrest and help educate others about it. Here’s her story, as told to health writer Julia Ries.
February 7, 2024, is my one-year “heart-iversary,” or as some people call it, my “did not die date.” My story begins on one of my regular morning walks with my husband in Miami, Florida. Around 6:30 a.m., in the middle of our two-mile stroll, I felt some chest pressure. I thought, “Maybe I slept weird, or I’m anxious or a little stressed out.” After all, I had a high-pressure operations job at a nearby hospital—I knew stress well.
I stretched out my body, but the pressure persisted. We went home, and I showered, got dressed, and drove to work. At a mid-morning meeting, I still felt off. It was like someone put a weight on my chest, or was pressing their hand above my breastbone. I thought, “Something’s not right.” After the meeting, I drove to an urgent care clinic. I trembled as I filled out the impossibly long admission paperwork, scribbling “chest pain” as my reason for being there. Because I worked in hospitals, I knew that doctors examine your heart if you use this phrase. Still, I didn’t think anything was seriously wrong.
I shared my risk factors with the health care providers: I had recently started taking low-dose statins because my cholesterol levels were high, but this was more so to be proactive about my future health. I had a family history of heart disease, but most of my relatives who dealt with heart problems were much older men. As a child, I’d been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, a common condition that causes plaque to build up in your arteries, but I’d long been told by doctors that I was fine because I was young, physically active, and healthy.
I had an electrocardiogram (ECG), a test that records electrical signals from the heart to quickly detect heart conditions. Around this time, I developed a strange, radiating pain along the right side of my neck. The urgent care workers said I was probably anxious. When the results came back, the providers said something didn’t look right and wanted to repeat the test. They ran a second ECG and told me that my results weren’t entirely normal, but they could be normal for me. They suggested I get a full cardiac evaluation, gave me an aspirin, and called an ambulance.
My husband met up with me at the urgent care as the ambulance arrived. The paramedics told my husband I was one hundred percent having a panic attack, and that urgent care clinicians send everyone to the hospital out of caution. My husband thought this was totally plausible, since I’d been so stressed out about work. To be honest, I did, too, although something inside me knew the persistent chest pressure was different from the anxiety I’d felt in the past.
In the ambulance, the paramedics did four ECGs—my results were abnormal, which they blamed on me moving or knocking the machine (movement can impact the accuracy of ECGs). They didn’t suspect anything serious was happening—they believed I was having premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), a common, mostly benign issue where the heart beats too fast or slow. I’d probably had PVCs my entire life, they assured me, and just didn’t know it. Again, I was told I’d be fine because I was young and healthy.
A paramedic asked me to rate the intensity of my chest pressure on a scale of 1 to 10. I gave it a six—it wasn’t necessarily dire, but it was definitely uncomfortable. They questioned whether it was really a six, I affirmed that indeed it was, and they gave me nitroglycerin, a pill that boosts blood and oxygen supply to the heart to minimize chest pain. My chest pressure dipped from a six to a four, but the relief was fleeting—it was so brief that I thought maybe it was due to a placebo effect. I didn’t know it at the time, but the chest discomfort and neck pain meant I was in active cardiac distress.
At the ER, a nurse hooked me up to a heart monitor and ran blood tests. They did a toxicology screening to ensure I hadn’t taken any drugs like fentanyl or cocaine (this is standard, but I’ve never even taken a CBD gummy, let alone anything harder), along with a cardiac troponin test, which looks for a protein in the bloodstream that’s released during a heart attack, and a chest X-ray. I was told there was a 30% chance I’d be able to go home that day.
Troponin tests typically take 20 minutes from start to finish, but it was two and a half hours before my results came back. If your troponin levels are higher than 30, you’re likely having some kind of cardiac event. My number was 1,416. I was wheeled to a laboratory so a cardiologist could perform a catheterization to look for clogged arteries. This entire time, I felt mostly fine. Other than the obnoxious chest pressure, which wasn’t any more bothersome than mild heartburn, I didn’t know I was close to dying. I could have totally ignored my symptoms. That’s the big thing: Heart attacks really are a silent killer.
In the lab, I started to feel faint and went into ventricular fibrillation, a dangerous and often fatal type of irregular heart rhythm. I passed out, and as I learned later, my arms and legs shot out and up. The physicians called a code blue, a term for adults having medical emergencies—in this case, it signaled that I was having a heart attack—and delivered an electric shock to my heart. I came to, unsure about what, exactly, was going on, though I figured it was serious.
I asked the doctors if I would need open-heart surgery, and they said they were doing their best to avoid that. They initiated a procedure to implant a stent, a little mesh tube that opens up clogged arteries. I fainted again and experienced ventricular tachycardia, a more common type of irregular heartbeat that can cause the heart to stop beating. I had gone into cardiac arrest again. When I stabilized, they performed the catheterization and found that two of my arteries were incredibly blocked. I received two stents that day, and another two days later. If I hadn’t gotten immediate medical attention, I could have died.
I wasn’t informed I had a heart attack until I was out of the lab and recovering in my hospital room. I felt a flood of emotions: I was relieved to be alive, and I wanted to be strong for my family, since they were probably horrified that they nearly lost me. The gravity of the situation didn’t hit me until a week later. I was terrified that if something happened when I was home alone, no one would know until it was too late. I felt a “high” right after my heart attack, but then there was a serious low. I started seeing a psychologist and was prescribed an antidepressant.
I started taking medications to protect my heart: a heart muscle relaxer, aspirin, an antiplatelet drug to keep my stents open, and three cholesterol medications. These medications impacted my energy levels and made it difficult to think quickly and multitask. The ER doctors had encouraged me to live normally again, but I wasn’t ready. I was scared to walk or work—I didn’t know if my heart could handle it. Instead, I took a month off from my job and enrolled in cardiac rehab. There, I practiced cardio exercises, like walking and cycling, and strength-training activities to monitor my heart function, build heart-healthy habits, and give me the confidence to live my life. To feel a little less alone, I joined a local WomenHeart support group, where I was the youngest person by at least 10 years. Sharing my story and connecting with other women living with heart disease (some for over 20 years) gave me strength and so much hope for the future. It was an amazing source of care and motivation.
Ultimately, my heart attack was due to the atherosclerosis—the doctors didn’t see how severe it had gotten until the catheterization. (They told me I essentially had the heart of an “unhealthy 60-year-old woman”—their words, not mine.) Thankfully, my heart doesn’t have significant permanent damage from the attack itself—it’s still able to pump blood throughout my body. That said, I have a 20% chance of experiencing another heart attack in my lifetime. My best bet is to control my risk factors, including my cholesterol and stress levels. I’m doing everything I can to improve my odds.
I know I’m lucky to be alive. Even when doctors knew about my red-flag symptoms, my family history, and my alarmingly high troponin levels, they still had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that I was having a heart attack. I don’t look like your typical heart attack patient—I’m young—but there’s a very real bias that comes with being a woman in her 30s experiencing cardiac issues. I can’t help but wonder if my heart attack could have been avoided had I been treated based on my symptoms, and not just my appearance, from the get-go.
Looking back, I wish the doctors had taken me seriously when I informed them about my family history. I wish they had listened when I said I had high cholesterol. My advice? Know your risk factors and repeat them as often as possible to doctors. This is absolutely crucial for advocating for yourself if you end up in a medical emergency. If something feels off, like it did for me that day, keep pushing for answers. If you’re worried you’re having a heart attack, ask if the health care providers treating you have tested your troponins. Remind them that, even if you look fine on the outside, no one can clearly see what’s going on inside your body.
When I tell people I had a heart attack, they can’t believe it. They always say, “But you’re too young for a heart attack!” I want to respond, “I know—but I’m not the only one. Other people my age are having far worse outcomes.”
Originally Appeared on SELF