Make us your home page
COVER story

Her message about heart attacks could save you


Between work, family and sports, Beth Lastinger is almost in constant motion. The 45-year-old mother of three plays tennis several times a week and loves to ride her bike.

"I've always considered myself in pretty good shape," said Lastinger, an attorney for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "We are an outdoor family and we do a lot of hiking in the mountains of North Carolina. I have always felt that I could pretty much do anything."

Lastinger's husband and their three boys — a 9-year-old and 6-year-old twins — all competed in triathlons.

She saw that an event was coming up in Safety Harbor on Oct. 30 and signed up.

"I was the only one in the house who hadn't completed a triathlon," she said. "So I figured why not . . . I'll do one."

Lastinger did her triathlon. But she also suffered a health crisis so subtle and surprising, it took her days to realize she was in serious trouble.

Now she's speaking out to let others know that heart attacks don't always announce themselves loudly with crushing pain. They also can arrive quietly, with symptoms that are easy to brush off.


Most doctors recommend starting off slow with any exercise program. Lastinger figured she was being smart by picking a "sprint" triathlon, which is considered a good introductory distance for most first-timers to the sport.

"I knew I could run 3 miles and ride 10 miles without much difficulty," she said. "But I really didn't think much about the swim."

The quarter-mile swim in Tampa Bay is the distance equivalent of less than 14 lengths in a 25-yard pool. But swimming in the chilly, open water — with waves, current and hundreds of other people jockeying for position — can cause a rookie triathlete a lot of stress.

"I didn't train at all for the swim," she said. "And right away I knew something wasn't right."

Lastinger's chest began to feel tight, but she wasn't used to swimming in a wet suit, and figured it was just a little snug.

Despite her discomfort, she carried on.

"I knew something wasn't right but I kept going," she said. "I felt weird on the bike and run too but I still finished the race."


After the triathlon, the feeling passed. Lastinger went home, gathered up her kids, and they all rode their bikes a couple of miles to downtown St. Petersburg.

"We stopped, had lunch . . . it was like nothing ever happened," she said.

But then three days later, at her regular Wednesday night tennis match, she started feeling nauseous.

"I had to stop playing," she said. "I just chalked it up to having a long day at work and not eating enough."

The next morning, as she was walking into work, the feeling returned. Lastinger sat down for about an hour, pain radiating down her left arm. Her chest felt heavy and she experienced a sense of "impending doom."

That's when a colleague stepped in and urged her to go to the hospital. A few minutes later she was on her way to Largo Medical Center.

"I walked in, said my chest hurt, and they rushed me back," she said. "I don't remember much else . . . they said I was having a heart attack."


Lastinger left the hospital with two stents in her heart. Her doctors were not sure what caused the heart attack. One theory was that a piece of vulnerable plaque broke off and blocked an artery.

Another theory was that Lastinger simply overdid it. The stress of the exercise caused the artery to tear apart. Her body tried to block it by creating a clot, which restricted the artery and triggered the heart attack.

That notion makes sense to her.

"I wasn't overweight," she said. "I didn't have a cholesterol problem. There was no plaque buildup. My body was just overloaded."

Lastinger said she was encouraged by the American Heart Association to share her story to help educate people. Heart attacks are rare in women as young and healthy as Lastinger, but they do happen, and so it's worth knowing your risk factors and the warning signs.

If you have a history of heart disease, you're older or you've been sedentary for a long time and want to become active, the medical advice is straightforward: Talk to your doctor.

"It is easy to bite off more than you can chew," said Dr. Jeremy McConnell of Bayfront Primary Care Associates. "It is always a good idea to see your doctor, get on a treadmill and see what you can do before you head out and try to do a half-marathon."

But if you've always been active and healthy, like Lastinger, getting a cardiac stress test before taking up a new activity may be the last thing on your mind.

Her takeaway message: Take the gradual approach to new sports so you learn your limits and you can tell right away when something doesn't feel right.

"You have to train," she said. "You can't take it for granted."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at


Heart disease is the top cause of death in the United States. Everyone knows someone who has had a heart attack, which occurs if blood flow to the heart suddenly becomes blocked. Yet it's not always easy to recognize the signs.

Most heart attacks cause discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

But it's not always that plain. Women are more likely than men to have other symptoms, such as:

. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

. Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting or lightheadedness.

. Unusual fatigue.

If you experience these symptoms, don't wait to get help — a fast response can prevent further damage to your heart.

Call 911; never drive yourself to the emergency room.

Sources: American Heart Association,


For more resources, including an online heart checkup, go to the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women site:


It's very rare for athletes to suffer a heart attack during competition.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the chances of suffering a heart attack during a marathon are relatively small. Researchers looked at 10 years of running events involving almost 11 million runners, and found that only 59 people had a cardiac arrest during a race — 51 of them men.

The average age of those who suffered a heart attack was 42, and most of them occurred near the finish line.

A previous study published in the American Journal of Cardiology looked at blood work from marathoners less than 24 hours after finishing a race and found "abnormally high levels of inflammatory and clotting factors of the kind that are known to set the stage for heart attack."

Does that mean running is bad for you?

"No, not at all. But it does mean we need to understand more about marathon training and how the human body reacts to stress," said Dr. Charles Schulman, president of the American Running Association. "I'm concerned that running a marathon has come to be viewed as a modern rite of passage."

Sources: New York Times,

Her message about heart attacks could save you 02/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 24, 2012 3:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours