Linda Johns left a book signing party and drove home by herself, all in the midst of a heart attack.
The 55-year-old author was with a group of friends presenting her middle-grade mystery book series when she suddenly felt the onslaught of flu-like symptoms. When she told her friend and author Kirby Larson that she didn't feel well, Larson attempted to step in.
"She took one look at me and tried to intervene, asking to take me home or to urgent care," Johns wrote in her NPR piece. "Something was off. She told me she was worried, and that I looked 'ashen.'"
As Johns would soon remember, looking ashen was one of the symptoms of an oncoming heart attack. She told her story to NPR because not many people know that the symptoms of a heart attack for a man and a woman are actually quite different.
Can you tell which one of these women is Linda Johns?
Believe it or not, she's the one sitting front and center, with the glasses. In this photo, she is already in the early stages of her heart attack.
Johns' symptoms, which closely mirrored textbook symptoms for women in cardiac arrest, included back pain; pain that traveled from her left arm to her left hand; vomiting; and an ashen complexion. She wrote that chest pain was "the least of my symptoms."
As it turned out, Johns had a myocardial infarction (MI) caused by a tear in the inner lining of an artery. The spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, was something that occurs in healthy women. Which made sense, since Johns' heart attack came just a couple months after she received a clean bill of health, good blood work and exceptional cholesterol scores to go with her healthy diet, exercise routine and lack of smoking.
Johns' story sheds light on a larger issue of an imbalance in medical care and education that women receive in comparison to men. Most people are familiar with causes and symptoms of heart disease in men. That might be why rates of heart disease in men have fallen dramatically in the last 25 years, while women have seen rates fall significantly less.
"I was surprised how many of the women in my life didn't know how different women's and men's heart attack symptoms are," Johns told A Plus. "I'm happy when friends and coworkers ask me about my experience because I think it helps get the word out. They might think they're being intrusive, and I may think I'm being boring talking about my heart — but the truth is we're just sharing information that could save someone's life."
According to Go Red For Women, an organization dedicated to reducing cardiovascular diseases for women, there are staggering disparities between men and women when it comes to heart disease. Perhaps most notably is that women age 45 and younger are more likely than men of that age to die within a year of their first heart attack.
"My heart attack was not the Hollywood kind where someone, almost always a man, grabs his chest and doubles over in pain," Johns wrote. "Every one of my symptoms was one that would stand on its own as a possible heart attack; all of my symptoms are ones that could be, and often are, dismissed by health care professionals, let alone by the people having them."