Stephanie Sobotka didn’t think she had anything out of the ordinary planned for Jan. 9, 2014.
This Highland mother of five helped her husband get off to work and her children to school. Now she was ready to head out the door to play tennis.
Stephanie started for the car and then felt nauseous.
Then she began to feel the most intense pain in her back and knew something was really wrong. When her arms went numb and her fingers started to curl up, she thought she was having a stroke.
“I was on the kitchen floor and texted my husband to come and get me and take me to the hospital,” she says. “I don’t know why I didn’t think to call 9-1-1.”
Her husband, Kelly, read the frantic text and tried to call to assess the situation, but curled fingers prevented Stephanie from swiping her phone to answer him. Finally, she managed to call him, and he rushed her to the hospital as soon as possible.
After numerous tests over the next few hours, this 39-year-old was informed she had suffered a myocardial infarction — a heart attack — and was ambulanced from American Fork Hospital to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center to meet with a cardiologist.
“I didn’t think it was a heart attack because I didn’t feel any chest pain,” she says. “You see people on TV grabbing their chest and describing an ‘elephant’ sitting on their chest. I didn’t have any of that.”
Stephanie was surprised to learn that her symptoms — although not “seen on TV” — were not unusual.
“Mrs. Sobotka experienced atypical chest pain, a common presentation in women,” says Dr. John Mitchell, the cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon who responded to Stephanie’s case. Approximately 60 percent of men having heart attacks present with typical chest pain, or angina, in the form of pressure and heaviness. Women, on the other hand, have typical angina in only 20 percent of cases.”
7 ways to love your heart
Dr. John Mitchell, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon with Intermountain Healthcare, suggests seven ways to lower the risk of heart disease.
1. Eat a heart-healthy diet.
2. Get 35 minutes a day of vigorous exercise, like a brisk walk.
3. Avoid obesity.
4. Manage diabetes tightly.
5. Stop (or never start) smoking.
6. Control blood pressure with diet, weight loss and medications.
7. Know your cholesterol numbers and follow advice from care providers.
In fact, her “atypical” chest pain is pretty typical for women.
Tests revealed that Stephanie had blockages in all three major vessels of the heart, consistent with severe coronary artery disease. The morning after her ride in the ambulance, she had a six-vessel bypass surgery.
“One minute I thought I would be home in time for dinner and was texting my children with instructions for the afternoon — and the next minute, I was preparing for major open-heart surgery,” she says. “It was a very emotional day.”
While many women suffer from heart disease — it’s the leading cause of death for women in the United States — not many thirtysomethings face heart surgery while living an active lifestyle and avoiding risk factors like smoking or obesity.
But Stephanie did have one factor that almost proved fatal.
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Sobotka has one severe risk factor for which she has little control — specifically, high cholesterol,” Dr. Mitchell says. “This risk factor was passed through her genetic make up.”
Stephanie knew of her high cholesterol. Her primary care physician suggested she take cholesterol-lowering medication, but she refused due to her young age and active lifestyle. Now she hopes her story will encourage others to get checked and follow doctors’ orders.
“You need to be aware of your risks — cholesterol, family history, diet, age, lifestyle — and then get checked out,” she says.
Stephanie knows her outcome could have been much worse.
“I consider it a miracle that I’m still here,” she says.
Stephanie’s recovery took its toll physically, but it’s the emotional journey that surprised her.
“It took me time to be confident in myself again,” she says. “It knocked me down pretty good. Having a near-death experience changes you.”
In Stephanie’s case, she became an advocate for heart health, she poured herself into physical therapy and she started to run her heart out.
“Now when I work out, I am not motivated by body image,” she says. “I worry about working my heart out.”
On May 10, 2014, four months to the day of her heart surgery, Stephanie ran in Intermountain’s Race for Red 5k. The race raises awareness for heart-healthy living and marked a milestone for Stephanie’s emotional and physical recovery. It also marked the first time she saw her surgeon, Dr. Mitchell, since her surgery.
“We were both emotional, as was the whole family, and the other doctors and nurses that cared for Mrs. Sobotka,” Dr. Mitchell says of the reunion. “To see her back to full speed is very satisfying for all of us who cared for her. But she’s done all the hard work!”
The hard work hasn’t just been in a pair of running shoes or on the tennis court. It’s been in the walls of her home.
“I value the time I have with my children and my husband more,” she says. “I value each day and I look forward to a long healthy life with them.”