Saturday 01 Nov 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: Social worker worried about her health, not her healthcare coverage

Published: 9:00 am CDT, January 23, 2014

Elise Beaulieu was a little annoyed as she left work following a conversation with a co-worker. She felt a little tired and a little strange, and her neck felt oddly tight.

As she walked a quarter-mile to her car in the parking garage, she debated going to the hospital to check out the symptoms. The reason against going was that the symptoms were quite vague. The reason for going was that she was facing a 30-mile trip home through traffic and, if the symptoms worsened, she’d end up at a community hospital.

While still in the parking garage, Elise called a friend to discuss her symptoms. Her friend advised her to see a doctor. After all, hospitals in Boston were closer and better, and Elise was familiar with Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She figured the $100 insurance deductible for the emergency room was worth it for the quality of care and the peace of mind, if it turned out to be a false alarm.

Still trying to determine if her symptoms were serious, Elise even debated whether to valet her car or park it herself in a garage.

She opted for the valet, and as she handed her keys to the attendant, she told him something she hadn’t even said to herself during the drive: “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

***

Eight years before, Elise’s husband, Robert, suffered a heart attack. He had an artery that was almost totally blocked and required a stent, a mesh-like tube used to open a clogged artery. He had four subsequent stents for heart blockages of over 80 percent.

Then 63, Elise had maintained her weight with an active lifestyle. She regularly worked out, lifted weights and swam. She wasn’t a smoker and her family did not have any history of heart trouble. Her father lived into his 90s and her mother is still living.

Despite it all, she now found herself in the ER. A nurse showed Elise’s blood pressure reading to another nurse, prompting an electrocardiogram (EKG) test. Reading the results, the nurse said: “You are having a heart attack.”

Elise broke into tears. Despite her impromptu diagnosis in the parking lot, “I could have not been more surprised or frightened.”

***

A small blood vessel in the back of Elise’s heart was blocked. It was too small for a stent to clear it, so doctors passed a wire through the vessel.

She was hospitalized for four days and was put on multiple medications. Once home, she continued to exercise and continued to follow a healthy lifestyle. She now rides her bike between 80 and 100 miles a week, and her cholesterol and blood pressure – which were under control before – are even lower.

“I think a lot of people think with heart attacks that they are going to be taken with sirens blaring, paddles whirring, after having fallen on the floor feeling like an elephant is stomping on your chest,” Elise said. “It wasn’t like that.”

Dr. Elliott Antman, Elise’s cardiologist and president-elect of the American Heart Association, surmised that the amount of ibuprofen Elise was taking to relieve the pain in her arthritic knees contributed to her heart attack.

“I was taking 800 milligrams a day, for months at a time, not even blinking,” Elise said. “Apparently it can cause some clotting. My heart didn’t show any signs of a problem. I was really a puzzle to these folks when they got in there.”

***

Elise came away from her experience wanting to emphasize two cautionary themes.

Elise (right) receiving a Distinguished Alumni award from Boston College in 2013.

First is that it can happen to anyone.

“I really think we can’t use just genetics and our lifestyle to give us a free pass to ignore symptoms, to ignore taking care of ourselves,” she said.

Second, she is concerned that the cost of healthcare keeps people from seeking help. She admits that had her own deductible cost more than $100, she may not have gone to the emergency room.

“I would have waited and that could have been a damaging situation to my heart,” she said.

Elise – who has been a social worker in the healthcare field for more than 40 years – is so passionate about heart health and accessibility to care that she plans to continue to share her experience through the American Heart Association and hopes to lobby lawmakers on behalf of the organization. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, and the American Heart Association is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization devoted to fighting cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

“As a healthcare professional, I feel that people should be aware of how insurance choices can have an impact on health and welfare,” she said. “In other words, if you have a deductible of $2,000 or $3,000, will you seek care at an ER when, or if, you have vague symptoms of a heart attack?”

***

Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

‘Courageous Katherine’ thrives on helping fellow heart patients

Busy mother couldn’t believe she was having a stroke, urges women to monitor health

Girl born with problematic heart thrives, loves giving others hope they can, too