Former City of Toronto employee opens up about 'widow-maker' heart attack — what to know

What exactly is a "widow-maker" heart attack? Signs and symptoms of a myocardial infarction.

paramedic wearing gloves holding defibrillator in hands wearing gloves helping patient with heart attack, widow-maker heart attack
What exactly is a "widow-maker" heart attack? Signs and symptoms of a myocardial infarction (Getty).

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Brad Ross, a former City of Toronto official, just survived a "widow-maker" heart attack — and he's warning others not to "eff around and find out" before it's too late.

Ross, who was the chief communications officer for the City of Toronto until Jan. 2023, shared a health update on Twitter on Monday, detailing his myocardial infarction — a heart attack commonly referred to as a "widow-maker."

In a three-part thread, the former Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) executive director detailed how "decisive action and superb care" saved his life — "no widow on this day."

"I was home 48 hours later," he wrote. "A stent, a slew of meds and some rest for a few more weeks" and a "full recovery is very likely."

Ross, who worked for the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission between 2000 and 2023, warned his Twitter followers to "check your blood pressure, cholesterol, family history and as hard as it is, find a way to quit the smokes."

"And if you ever feel those tell-tale symptoms of a heart attack, call 911. Don't eff around and find out," he cautioned.

A "widow-maker" is a massive heart attack that occurs when the left anterior descending artery (LAD) is completely blocked or has a critical blockage. In 2018, "Clerks" director Kevin Smith went viral for sharing his "widow-maker" experience, which prompted a lifestyle change and a 105-pound weight loss.

What is a widow-maker heart attack — and why is it so deadly?

Like other tissues in the body, the heart muscle needs oxygen-rich blood to function. Coronary arteries run along the outside of the heart and have small branches that supply blood to the heart muscle.

The LAD artery is the left anterior descending artery, which supplies blood to the front of the left side of the heart. Of all the branches that deliver blood to the heart muscle, the LAD is typically considered the most important.

“When it comes to coronary disease and the arteries, it’s location, location, location,” Dr. Saul Isserow, director of the Vancouver General Hospital Centre for Cardiovascular Health and the director of cardiology services at UBC Hospital, said in a 2018 interview. “The LAD provides a tremendous amount of blood to the heart muscle.”

"When someone says 'I had a heart attack 10 years ago,' they’re one of the lucky ones."Dr. Saul Isserow

“People [who have heart attacks] often have no preceding warning signs or symptoms,” he added. “When someone says ‘I had a heart attack 10 years ago,’ they’re one of the lucky ones.”

That’s because approximately 50 per cent of first heart attacks are fatal.

While a widow-maker heart attack is particularly dangerous, its title is a misnomer; it’s just as likely to be a “widower-maker.”

“When the term ‘widow maker’ is used, it perpetuates the notion that coronary disease is mostly a male disease, and that is not the case,” said Isserow. “In fact, coronary disease is the epitome of an equal-opportunity disease.

“It is often fatal and can affect people in the prime of their lives,” he adds. “You’re not protected because you’re young.”

Although many people don’t experience symptoms prior to a heart attack, Kevin Smith did. He said on social media he felt nauseated, that his chest felt heavy, and that he started sweating profusely.

Signs & symptoms of a heart attack to watch out for

Other signs of an LAD or other types of heart attack are the same. They can include shortness of breath, dizziness or light-headedness, fatigue, heartburn, abdominal pain,and pressure, tightness, pain or a squeezing or aching sensation in the chest or arms that may spread to the neck, jaw or back.

Some heart attacks occur out of the blue, while some people have symptoms hours, days or even weeks in advance. The first sign may be angina — recurrent chest pain caused by a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart — that’s triggered by exertion and eased by rest.

When it comes to survival rates — knowing the warning signs is vital.

“Over the years, I’ve seen too many tragedies because people didn’t seek medical attention,” said Dr. Beth Abramson, spokesperson for the Heart & Stroke Foundation, in 2018. “I literally had a patient who was worried enough she was having a heart attack — she woke up with chest heaviness, sweating and was short of breath — that she unlocked the front door in case the ambulance had to come then went back to sleep. We have excellent health care in Canada but we have to access that care.”

Nine in 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke.

Abramson also noted that nine in 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke. Those risk factors include smoking high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of exercise, obesity and diabetes.

Up to 80 per cent of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable by eating a healthy diet, being physically active, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking.

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