Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's Story

Life After a Heart Attack – Ally’s Story

My life after a heart attack has been hard, but I’m grateful to be here to talk about it. I discovered more perseverance than I knew I had.

Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's StoryI was only 24. I was in the process of planning my wedding and excited about my future. Until one day, I had tightness in my chest and general discomfort. I had trouble breathing, like when you get the wind knocked out of you. When I could get a full breath, there was a lot of wheezing. My upper back burned between my shoulder blades, directly behind my heart. I had to take breaks doing simple chores, like climbing the stairs. After three days of this, I woke up sweating and feeling anxious. My Smartwatch said my heart rate was 210.

I didn’t know it, but I was having a heart attack.


“I tried to tell everyone I was fine.”


The day of my rapid heart rate, I spent the morning with my in-laws. Suddenly my heart was beating so fast it felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. It got faster and faster and my vision went black. This is it. I thought. I’m going to die, right here in my in-laws living room, the day before Easter. How inconvenient.

My in-laws suddenly sounded far away, like the adults in Charlie Brown. They told me I was unconscious for about five minutes.

A family member who is an EMT recommended we go to the hospital. I tried to tell everyone I was fine. This is overkill. I only fainted! I could simply go to urgent care because the ER was going to be a waste of time and expensive.

It feels so silly now.

At the ER they performed several tests and concluded this episode was not life threatening. They said to make an appointment with my doctor, but no rush, I’ll be fine. So, I went home.

Yep, I went home.


“I had to take breaks in the parking lot. I had trouble climbing the stairs.”

Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's StoryMy life after the heart attack started with pain and discomfort, doctors and tests, incorrect answers, and misplaced reassurances that I was going to be fine.

It’s a miracle that I am still alive to tell this story.

For the next three weeks my upper back was in so much pain. I went to a chiropractor who told me I had a crooked spine. I thought that was strange since everyone my age gets tested for scoliosis as a child and my spine had never been an issue before. The chiropractor recommended I come in for adjustments three times a week.

But the horrible pain didn’t go away. I had to take breaks in the parking lot walking to my office. I had trouble climbing the stairs. I couldn’t lay flat at all. While sleeping in the recliner, I used frozen sticks of butter as an icepack. They were the perfect shape to fit between my shoulder blades. I would wake up with a smushed stick of melted butter in a Ziplock bag halfway through the night and swap it out for a new one to finish out the night.


“I shocked my doctor at a top-rated cardiac hospital.”

My life after the heart attack continued with self-doubt, guilt, phone calls to fight for my own emergency room records, appointments, tests, and then a heart catheterization.

During the cardiac catheterization, the doctors looked at my coronary arteries and found three blockages. It was said that I had the arteries of an elderly man with advanced heart disease. Again, I was 24.

The interventional cardiologist took me out of the cath lab without any stents so that he could consult with other medical professionals. I shocked my doctor at a top-rated cardiac hospital. Super. It’s never good when your doctor says, “I don’t know what to do.” After some discussion, I got in a five-hour ambulance ride to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

There, I got even. More. Tests.

I was seen by more doctors than I could count – internal medicine doctors, cardiologists, endocrinologists, rheumatologists, and hordes of residents going through rotation. Clusters of physicians came into my room, asked questions, talked amongst themselves, and came back later in greater numbers with more questions.

I was poked, prodded, examined, asked about symptoms, and questioned incessantly about my lifestyle (which is code for “drug use”). It was like being a zoo animal, only on a cardiac diet.


“They didn’t have an answer to why my early heart attack happened, but the important thing was to get blood flow to my heart.”

Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's StorySurviving a heart attack was easy. Getting ER staff to believe I was in distress the day of my heart attack and getting physicians to believe I wasn’t using drugs was the hardest part.

After a week of testing, the surgeon came into my room and said they didn’t have an answer to why my early heart attack happened (other than high cholesterol), but the important thing was to get blood flow to my heart. I would need double bypass surgery right away.

They ran through the logistics of the surgery, describing how they would need to “harvest” arteries to do the bypass. “Harvest” is a word I have never cared for. It made me feel like a field of corn, ripe for the picking.

After surgery, I remember waking up with a ventilator in my throat, shocked and confused, with literal glue on my eyes to prevent me from waking up too early.

I spent another week in the hospital recovering. I had drainage tubes, internal stitches, and needed a walker to move around. I couldn’t use the bathroom alone and struggled to keep food down.


“The physical scars fade gradually, but the mental scars remain as a reminder.”

Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's StorySix years post-operation, it all still feels like a dream. A movie. A story that happened to some other person also named Ally.

When I left my apartment for my routine cardiac catheterization, I only expected to be gone for one night. Between the ambulance rides, tests, surgery, and cardiac rehab, I was gone nearly two months.

I still sport a zipper scar on my chest, the full length of my sternum. It tingles in the cold and itches in the heat. My healed ribs and medically cracked sternum ache in the rain. I wear high-neck tops to cover my scar from prying eyes, so I don’t have to unload my trauma on them.

Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's StoryI still have a large, curved keloid on my left arm – a reminder of the artery “borrowed” for my double-bypass. I still have four smaller scars on my stomach from the drainage tubes that fused into my skin when healing began. I still have a scar on my neck that masquerades as a birth mark from the IV, and my veins contain scar tissue that makes getting bloodwork difficult.

The physical scars fade gradually, though to me they still look as fresh as the day I got them, but the mental scars remain as a reminder.

When it was all over, I could go home, but life was absolutely not the same. I don’t even recognize the person I was before.


“After a heart attack you can expect…”

After a heart attack and/or open-heart surgery you can expect to be sore… like really sore. Like hit-by-a-train-sore. Invest in some heating pads, ice packs, and consult your doctor before using any over-the-counter pain relievers. You can expect to have limited birth control options. You can expect to be on other prescriptions for the rest of your life.

After bypass surgery, the world will sound different. You may feel and hear your heart beating, possibly for the first time in recent memory. Like the bass at a loud concert, it will beat stronger and louder than ever before since you are now the proud owner of a fully functioning heart! I did go to the doctor thinking I was having fluttering in my heart, but it turned out to be my heartbeat. EASY MISTAKE.

Also, my recliner turned out to be a Godsend. I would never have slept without it after my heart attack. If you can’t invest in a recliner, a wedge pillow will do the trick. I don’t personally recommend a stack of pillows as they tend to turn into a Leaning Tower of Pisa situation.

I make jokes about the experience, but I won’t sugarcoat it – life after a heart attack is hard. You may find perseverance you didn’t know you had. People will say “I don’t know how you survived it,” but it’s not like a movie or a video game. There’s not some magical wizard who says, “you shall not pass!” and offers you a choice of giving up or defeating your mortal enemy: heart disease. You put one foot in front of the other day after day until you no longer recognize the person worrying about bridesmaids.

It’s messy. It’s traumatizing. It’s dehumanizing but rehumanizing at the same time. You will need help getting out of bed. You will get so exhausted lifting your arms to put a shirt on or to wash your own hair. You’ll probably need to sit down and take a break in the middle of a shower. You’ll need to buy larger clothes because your new scar will be irritated by regular clothes.


"There's also mental and emotional trauma."

There’s a lot of mental and emotional trauma. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also resent not being heard, and wonder what life would be like if they had listened the first time. Those emergency room doctors simply didn’t believe me and sent me home with a false reassurance of health and security. You start to question your intuition and your whole world view thinking, am I exaggerating my pain?

Talk to someone. Talk to a family member, a friend, a professional mental healthcare provider. Share the burden of your experience. I find that others are kinder to me than I am to myself.

Start a journal! Find a way to express yourself. I pushed and pushed my trauma away and waited way too long to talk about my mental health after this experience. It’s an emotional strain and it deserves as much attention as your healing body.

That advice also goes for your loved ones. They need to talk to someone too, and it shouldn’t be you, the patient. It’s been tough and draining and scary for my entire family. It’s extremely traumatizing to think your child, sister, partner could die like this. I often think our loved ones need more support than we do after a heart attack. You know your own reality, but your loved ones envision every worst-case scenario. It’s important to give people the space to talk and work through all the emotions happening during the journey.

Remember to be kind to yourself. I spent three weeks in pain, blaming myself for being “out of shape” when the fact was, my heart was dying. I pushed myself past the point of exhaustion because I said that there was no better time like the present to exercise more. Let yourself heal from this trauma. Your body and your brain will thank you. Don’t push yourself.

My biggest piece of advice: don’t be afraid to push back on doctors if your gut says something’s wrong. Trust your intuition. I would not be alive today if I had not sought care after the ER visit. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to note their refusal of care or tests in and get a different doctor. Your life is too precious.


“The worst storms test the strength of our anchors.”

Life After a Heart Attack - Ally's StoryI am so incredibly grateful to family who helped me get in to see the doctors at the Mayo Clinic. I received some of the best care imaginable. We felt heard, and I am confident that they explored all possible avenues to find a reason for my heart attack.

Today, I still don’t have all the answers for why this happened. My LDL cholesterol is high, but not crazy high. My Lp(a) is high, but also not crazy high. For a long time, I didn’t know where to turn, where did I belong? The Family Heart Foundation offered me a space to explore what happened, why it happened, and how I can save others from it happening to them. They’ve given families like mine a community, a space to exist, to grieve the life we thought we were living, and to be grateful for the one we have.

Life after a heart attack is not easy, but it’s still life, and it’s worth living. Like my dad wrote, “the worst storms test the strength of our anchors.”

Ally M. - Advocate for AwarenessAlly M.
Advocate for Awareness
Family Heart Foundation

Ally M. is a Family Heart Foundation Advocate for Awareness. If you're interested in joining the Family Heart Foundation as an Advocate click here to learn more.


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