Jenny Petz never paid attention to her heart health or knew she had high cholesterol until she had a heart event. Today, she encourages women to know their numbers and make lifestyle changes to protect their hearts.
Jenny Petz thought she was healthy. She maintained a healthy weight, exercised regularly, didn’t smoke and ate a healthy diet.
But on Jan. 3, 2008, she found out she had hereditary high cholesterol when a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, triggered a heart event.
While home nursing her 8-day-old son, Petz’s throat was closing, and she felt a rush from head to toe. Her left arm began tingling and soon felt numb.
Struggling to stand and put on her shoes, she called for her mom. Then she collapsed.
Her mom called 9-1-1. Petz went in and out of consciousness as the EMT crew moved her into an ambulance.
“I thought I was dying,” she said.
An EKG at the hospital indicated Petz, then 32, had a heart attack. She received three stents to reopen her coronary artery. Petz had spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which occurs when one of the three layers of the artery wall tears and traps blood, causing a bulge that narrows or blocks the artery.
Doctors also found a 98 percent blockage due to high cholesterol.
Petz was prescribed medication and spent the next two years trying to correct her cholesterol through diet and exercise. She consulted with specialists, tried becoming a vegetarian and even weighed her food to control portions.
“I was scared, full of anxiety and tried everything, but it did not make one ounce of difference,” she said. “I do what I can to help my body be as healthy as I can, but I will always be on medication.”
Doctors told Petz that they weren’t sure what triggered the SCAD, which isn’t typically associated with high cholesterol. SCAD survivors are often women who are otherwise healthy, with few or no risk factors for heart disease. They suggested her blockage may have put pressure on her heart and arteries during pregnancy — 30 percent of SCAD patients have recently had a child.
Before her son was born, Petz remembers being unusually tired and short of breath — warning signs of heart attack — but had chalked it up to pregnancy.
Looking back, Petz realized she may have had untreated high cholesterol for years. Her family was told she had elevated cholesterol at a health fair when she was 13, but they didn’t follow up for additional testing.
“I was always trim and felt fit but realized that didn’t mean I was heart healthy,” she said. “The biggest thing I learned was that exercise isn’t just to look good, it’s to strengthen your heart.”
The experience made Petz reexamine her risks for heart disease and ask questions about family history.
She learned that her maternal grandmother was diagnosed with high cholesterol as a young woman. Five years ago, Petz’s father finally got checked and learned he too had high cholesterol.
While Petz, now 45 and living near Omaha, Neb., is still looking for answers about SCAD, she advocates for greater awareness and encourages others to know their numbers and understand their risk.
“Heart attacks can happen to anyone,” she said. “It’s changed a lot of perceptions of what healthy means.”