The day that changed everything started out like any other for Rachel Doucette. She planned to attend her oldest son’s book fair and was looking forward to a conference call in the afternoon. She would miss both.
Early that morning on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011, she curled up on the garage floor with chest pains so strong that giving birth paled in comparison. As midnight approached, a cardiac surgeon at a Boston hospital told her husband, Mike, she may not survive.
Two days before her 36th birthday, Doucette, an active, healthy mother of three suffered a heart attack.
The Georgetown resident is now sharing details of that terrifying day as a 2013 Go Red spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.
In its 10th year, Go Red for Women is a national movement to fight heart disease in women and to call for more research and swifter action for women’s heart health.
“I’ve the opportunity to hopefully save the lives of other women and empower other women so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” Doucette said. “If I can make any positive change from what happened to me, it’d all be worth it.”
Her young age, the sequence of events and passion for raising awareness of what is sometimes called the “silent killer” of women made Doucette an ideal Go Red representative, said Kathleen Parente, communications director for the Heart Association. The selection of Doucette and five other local spokeswomen was announced at a reception in late September.
“It’s such a moving story for other women to hear,” Parente said. “She’s the classic mom trying to care for her children, when in reality, she’s suffering a heart attack.”
On that 10-degree winter morning, a coincidence worked in Doucette’s favor. Her daughter Rebecca, then almost 7, who usually rode the school bus with her older brother, decided to get a ride to school from her mother instead. Other than a looming blizzard, it seemed like an ordinary day.
But as Doucette was putting the seat belt on her then 4-year-old son, she felt like she pulled a muscle. The pain radiated from her chest into her right arm and she stood up to stretch. The pain intensified.
“I told my daughter that ‘mommy needs a minute, can you help me put your brother in his seat,’ and she did that for me,” Doucette said.
The pain became crushing. She was losing feeling in her arms. Gasping for air, she rolled into the fetal position on the garage floor as her young daughter took control. Rebecca took out Doucette’s cellphone and managed to get her up the steps and into the house. Doucette’s mom, who lives with the family, called 9-1-1 while Rebecca stayed with her little brother in the car as the paramedics arrived.
As Doucette now tells anyone who will listen, “time is muscle” and the longer it takes a victim of a heart attack to be treated, “you either lose that muscle or you lose your life.” In her case, it would take an entire day before she received the proper diagnosis.
Following a series of cardiac tests at the emergency room, Doucette’s EKG came back abnormal. The levels of certain enzymes and proteins in her blood were elevated, indicating damage to the heart muscle. She had vomited in the ambulance — another symptom of a heart attack — and the chest pain persisted.
Still, the message from the doctors was clear.
“I was told unequivocally that she did not have a heart attack,” said Mike Doucette, her husband.
However, Doucette was in the midst of a heart attack. It was caused not by the buildup of plaque, but by a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, in which the lining of the coronary artery peels off and blocks the flow of blood to the heart muscle.
The condition mostly affects women under 50 and patients usually exhibit no obvious risk factors, according to the Mayo Clinic online.
A week before, Doucette had received a clean bill of health during her annual physical. Only the unexpected death of her father at age 54 from a heart attack in his sleep stood out to the ER doctors.
“They kept going back to anxiety,” said Doucette, who has learned anxiety attacks are often blamed for heart attack symptoms in women. “They said that with three kids I had a lot of stress in my life, but I knew that wasn’t it. My biggest mistake at that point was not advocating for my health, demanding that I get a catheterization.”
In order to undergo the procedure that diagnoses heart conditions, Doucette would have to be transferred to a Boston hospital. But the snowstorm was picking up and MedFlight had stopped running.
Twelve hours after she arrived at the ER, Doucette saw a cardiologist for the first time. An echocardiogram showed the front wall of her heart was not moving. She was now so unstable that doctors debated whether she could be transferred at all. Finally, an ambulance took her on snowy highways to a Boston hospital where she immediately had an emergency catheterization.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “I could tell something was very wrong by the way people acted around me.”
At 11:45 p.m., a cardiac surgeon and the catheterization lab doctor approached Mike Doucette in the waiting room. His wife needed open heart surgery.
“I couldn’t believe it; they were telling me that she might die,” he said, his voice thickening with emotion. “I broke down. I remember pleading with them, I can’t lose her to a heart attack.”
Doucette watched staff scrambling to get his wife ready for surgery. He recalled the anesthesiologist screaming at him to sign the consent form.
“I didn’t know if I was coming back,” she said. “I said goodbye.”
Just over a year later, on Feb. 3 — her birthday — Doucette traveled to Natick to share her story at a casting call for Go Red for Women.
It had taken a year to sink in: the 6.5-hour surgery, the week in the intensive care unit, the cardiac rehab, the outpouring of support from the community, and the fact that she lost some heart function.
“At that time I did it as milestone for myself,” she said of the decision to attend the casting call. “I could call myself a survivor.”
She now takes six medications compared to none before, she tires more easily and has to be careful lifting to avoid a tear.
Life has changed not only for her, but for the entire family. If she stays longer than usual in bed in the morning, Mike Doucette checks in on her, fighting a lingering fear that it might happen again.
The first of Doucette’s ambassador duties comes on Tuesday, a Go Red fashion show at UMass Lowell. Her daughter, now 8, will join her on the runway.
Those who look closely will see her new motto on the tiny engraved print on her necklace: “Keep calm and carry on.”
Heart attack signs in women
Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Other than chest pain, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Source: The American Heart Association