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Heart to heart

As the pain Teresa Hansen was feeling swelled and intensified, a myriad of questions swam through her head, but there was one thing she knew for certain. She was far too busy to be having a heart attack.

“We had a 90th birthday to attend in Fresno that day and we were going to a crab feed in Turlock that night with friends,” Hansen said. “My husband was with me at Memorial Medical Center in Modesto and I turned to him and said, ‘We don’t have time for this today. I can’t be having a heart attack.’”

But having one she was and like countless other women, the symptoms Hansen was feeling didn’t fit with the classic signs that have come to be associated with having a heart attack.

Heart disease is the number one killer of American women, more than all cancers combined, according to the American Heart Association. In all, heart disease kills about 300,000 women a year, while stroke kills 82,000.

The symptoms of heart attack can be different in women and men, and are often misunderstood, even by some physicians. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort, but women are more likely than men to experience some of the other symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

The jaw pain is how it began for Hansen on Feb. 24, 2018. The then 57-year-old Atwater resident was getting ready for bed when she felt an intense pain in her jaw.

“It was like a vise grip was being tightened around my jaw and the pain radiated all the way down to my chest,” Hansen said. “I knew this was not normal.”

Hansen took a baby aspirin that they kept on hand for their Labrador after the first day of hunting season. The pain subsided but would return throughout the morning. Hansen and her husband decided they had to go to the hospital.

The realization that she was having a heart attack hadn’t quite set in for Hansen. She was active, ate healthy and maintained a good weight. Her last doctor visit showed her cholesterol levels were good and she had low blood pressure. But she also had a family history of heart disease. Her father had a heart attack followed by bypass surgery at age 46. Her older brother had one at 47 and had to have a stent placed. Her mother was 69 when she had a heart attack and a stent.

“When my mom had hers, the pain was in the throat, so I knew women don’t always present with the standard symptoms,” Hansen said. “It still didn’t seem like it was really happening to me.”

A chest x-ray showed Hansen’s heart was enlarged and her chest was cloudy. A trip to the catheterization laboratory revealed five of her arteries to her heart were blocked, including one in two places. She had suffered a mild heart attack, but the doctor didn’t believe any permanent damage had been sustained. However, they had to deal with the blockages or she risked a second more serious heart attack. She was told she would be going in for a six-way bypass the following day.

Faith in God is a major part of Hansen’s life and she spent the night before praying with her family, friends and some of the hospital staff.

“Through the whole experience it was such a comfort that God put all these people in my path,” Hansen said.

Her surgery went well, though she did have to return to the hospital shortly after her release because one of the bypass vessels failed. The vessel was fixed and the heart team put in two stents.

Hansen has made a complete recovery and is now sharing her story to help other women learn about heart disease and to be aware of the signs the body may be sending.

“If my experience helps someone else then it is worth what I went through,” Hansen said.

Hansen will be one of the stories shared at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women event. The event is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 26, at the Modesto Centre Plaza. 

Go Red for Women began 15 years ago as an awareness campaign for women about heart health and providing a platform for women and their families to lead healthier lives, and drive collective action for community transformation.

The luncheon continues to serve as the cornerstone event of the Go Red for Women movement in local communities. It strives to promote healthy lifestyles, build awareness and raise critically-needed funds to support research and education initiatives. The Modesto luncheon will feature Sutter Health Memorial Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Gino Patrizio and a keynote presentation from Sutter Health Memorial Medical Center Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Stephen Noble.

Tickets for the luncheon are $75 and are available at