Heart Attack Diagnosis

How Shortness of Breath Led to Heart Attack Diagnosis

Did you know that heart disease is the greatest cause of death in women and early intervention improves outcomes? And if something went wrong with your heart, would you know it? Heart problems are often overlooked signs, especially as several are unique to women. This experience happened to Merle Pittillo, 79, of Hendersonville, NC.


In October 2020, Merle started feeling short of breath, especially when she was cold or raking leaves – as was the case just before she sought care. She never imagined it was because of a heart attack. “I thought I was a healthy person,” Pittillo said. After two days of feeling terrible and the pain worsening, Pittillo went to Pardee’s Emergency Department. “I felt so bad when I got to the hospital, but was shocked to find out I had a heart attack.”

Merle Pittillo


 A heart attack happens when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart is cut off or severely reduced. “This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow can become narrowed from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances that together are called plaque,” said Dr. Fontana. “Mrs. Pittillo had a mild heart enzyme leak, and a stent was put in to prevent any further symptoms.”

Dr. Fontana explained that she likely felt discomfort when she was cold because exposure to cold is a psychological stressor and constricts blood vessels and increases demands on the heart. Fortunately, Mrs. Pittillo had only one artery blocked and suffered minimal damage. More than a year later, she is doing well and has an excellent prognosis.


When we think of a heart attack, the image of someone grabbing their chest and falling to the ground often comes to mind. In reality, women   may have less typical symptoms of heart disease, including a heart attack. “Women may have less typical symptoms when their heart muscle is     not getting enough blood flow. Instead of the ‘elephant sitting on their chest’ feeling often typical of a heart attack, women may complain of shortness of breath, weakness, nausea, sweating, arm pain and pain between the shoulder blades,” said Dr. Gary Fontana, interventional cardiologist, Pardee UNC Health Care. “Women may experience less than total blockage without obvious chest pain.”


Heart disease is preventable and there are things you can do to reduce your risk including quit smoking, exercise regularly and eat a well-balanced diet. In addition to knowing the signs of a heart attack, it is also important to schedule an appointment with your health care provider to learn about your personal risk for heart disease.


Visit pardeehospital.org to find a provider near you.



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