What Women Can Learn from Rosie O’Donnell’s Heart Attack

It took O'Donnell nearly a day to realize she was having a heart attack. Here's why women's heart disease differs from men's

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Peter Kramer / NBC

Rosie O'Donnell appears on NBC News' "Today" show in New York City, April 26, 2012.

Not every heart patient turns to verse to describe a heart attack, but that’s how comedian Rosie O’Donnell chose to tell the world that she had joined the 435,000 women in the U.S. each year who experience heart attacks.

What surprised fans who read her poem, “My Heart Attack,” posted on her blog, was that O’Donnell didn’t realize right away she was even having a heart attack. After feeling tightness in her chest and some pain after helping a woman get out of her car, O’Donnell went for almost an entire day before her persistent pain led her to look up her symptoms on the Internet. Only then did she realize that what she was feeling matched up with the signs of a heart attack.

She wrote:

know the symptoms ladies
listen to the voice inside
the one we all so easily ignore
CALL 911

save urself

It’s good advice, since women don’t always feel the classic chest-tightening pain and tingling arms that men experience during a heart attack. In about 70% of women, the only warning signs are an overall weakness or a dull pain in the back, with no chest pain. Doctors aren’t always trained to recognize heart attack symptoms in women either, and women are less likely to receive drug treatments that can minimize damage to the heart. That’s why women are twice as likely to die in the first weeks after having a heart attack than men.

For more on what makes women’s heart disease different, here’s my story on a Mayo Clinic program that’s helping to make women more aware of the signs and symptoms of heart trouble.