The pain kept coming back intermittently during the course of a week, typically when Semones was doing something physical, such as carrying a basket of laundry upstairs or attaching a bike rack to her car.
Finally, upon the suggestion of her brother-in-law, an internal medicine doctor, she went to an internist and got an electrocardiogram.
When it turned up normal, Semones was ready to forget about the whole thing.
After all, the 52-year-old fourth-grade teacher at 4/5 Academy in Decatur lives an active lifestyle, has low blood pressure and cholesterol, eats well and is not overweight.
“I almost ignored it,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to the cardiologist. I didn’t think I had anything going on.”
With a trip to the beach coming up, Semones did not want her pains to put a damper on the vacation, so she went to Piedmont Hospital, where cardiologist Dr. Anna Kalynych suggested having a CT scan.
“[The doctors] said I had 98 percent blockage and was 30 minutes from having a giant heart attack,” she said.
Soft plaque had been building in her lower aorta and ruptured, forming a clot that was blocking the blood flow to her heart.
Semones was immediately admitted to the hospital and put on Heparin, a blood-thinning medicine to tackle the clot. The next afternoon, doctors snaked a catheter up her leg to place a stent in her heart to keep blood flowing.
She was discharged the next day and still was able to go to the beach.
“I feel very fortunate,” Semones said. “I don’t think I would have survived [the heart attack].”
While Semones’ lifestyle did not have any red flags that would point toward heart disease, her father died from a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot — that formed in his leg and traveled to his lungs.
She said she believes that contributed to her cardiac event. Semones also said while her cholesterol level of 70 is within normal range, Kalynych said it is still too high for her.
She is now on a course of cholesterol medication and is continuing her active lifestyle of hiking, biking and yoga, as well as eating right.
The symptoms Semones experienced — nausea and pain in her chest, left arm and jaw — are classic symptoms of an impending heart attack, said Piedmont Heart cardiologist Dr. Jyoti Sharma.
“When we think of heart attacks, we think of that dramatic scene we see in movies where someone is clutching their chest,” she said. “While chest pain or discomfort is a common symptom for heart attacks in both men and women, women tend to experience things like shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, cold sweats and pain in the jaw or back. These lesser known symptoms can easily be overlooked or attributed to something else.”
Semones said she has experienced reflux in the past and thought maybe that was causing her pain.
“I didn’t want to cry wolf,” she said.
Semones said she would have been embarrassed to go to the doctor and just be told she had a gas bubble.
She said one thing she has learned from the experience is not to be afraid or ashamed to seek medical attention for something that is ailing her.
“I feel very grateful that each step of the way that week was sending me to the right place and I got where I needed to be,” Semones said. “Instead of thinking what could have happened, I focused on what did happen.”
Sharma said the American Heart Association estimates 90 percent of women are at risk for heart disease.
“One out of three women will have heart disease in her lifetime, whereas one in nine women will get breast cancer,” she said.
Prevention is crucial, Sharma added.
“Over half of women have no warning symptoms prior to sudden cardiac death, which is why it’s so important for women to be seen and evaluated by a doctor to make sure they are not at risk for heart disease,” she said.
Prevention begins by knowing cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and weight.
“Once you take into consideration your family history of heart disease and consult with a doctor to understand your risk for heart disease, work to reduce that risk by making changes to your lifestyle like committing to stay active, incorporating heart-healthy meals in your dinner plans and quit smoking,” Sharma said.
A free risk assessment can be found online at www.piedmontheart.org.