OLDSMAR — It's small, plastic, has a magnet on the back — and it may have saved Charlene Mixa's life.
For years, Mixa had occasionally experienced a sensation of pressure in her chest and jaw. The pain was mild, and it happened only once or twice a year, during hiking trips.
She figured it had something to do with altitude, since she was in the mountains whenever the pain struck. It always went away when she rested, so she figured it was nothing to worry about. Other reasons for her confidence: At 67, Mixa has always been active, never smoked and keeps her weight in check. She even switched to a plant-based diet five years ago when her cholesterol started creeping up.
But last March, the pain struck during a round of golf in Florida. A couple of weeks later, Mixa was at home changing clothes and noticed the sensation.
She might have brushed it aside as usual, but for the free refrigerator magnet that had arrived in the mail the day before. Sent by her local hospital, it listed heart attack symptoms in women, including jaw pain.
So when she felt the pressure while changing clothes, she paid attention.
"My first reaction was, this is not good," Mixa said.
She got her husband's home blood pressure monitor, wrapped it around her arm and saw her numbers were higher than normal.
Pulling the fridge magnet out from a stack of mail, she did a mental checklist.
When men have a heart attack, they often describe chest-grabbing pain that brings them to their knees. Women, however, may experience subtler discomfort or pain that feels like indigestion or the flu. Their pain may be in the upper abdomen, upper back or jaw. They may feel tired, dizzy or breathless with little or no physical activity. The symptoms can be so vague and ordinary, they might be dismissed as getting older or stress or fatigue.
Exactly what Mixa had been doing.
"I said to myself, 'I have all the symptoms of a heart attack. The magnet confirms it,' " she recalled.
She had her husband drive her to Mease Countryside Hospital — but knows now it would have been better to call 911.
"She was having a heart attack when she arrived at the hospital," said her cardiologist, Dr. Alan Camp. That means she should have been under the care of paramedics right away.
"She could have died in the car on the way to the hospital,'' Camp said. "Many patients have to be resuscitated in their car or in the hospital's driveway. That's why you should call 911 when you have chest pain or suspect a heart attack. Paramedics can administer live-saving medication in the ambulance."
What she did right: taking a few aspirin before leaving home.
"That's what we do in the ER. We have them chew four baby aspirin. The good thing is, there's no harm done if you're wrong and the person isn't having a heart attack," Camp said. Chewing the aspirin is key so it gets into your system faster.
A heart attack or the symptoms that lead up to one are caused when blood flow to the heart is blocked. It's not uncommon for the symptoms to come and go over time.
Mixa had two blockages in one coronary artery — the artery known as the widowmaker because many people don't survive a heart attack in that vessel — and required the placement of two stents. She takes medication to help with her cholesterol and a daily dose of aspirin, something she's done for years.
Doctors blame Mixa's family history and age for the heart attack. Everyone's risk increases with age, and several men on her father's side of the family died of heart problems in their 50s and 60s.
With her active lifestyle and heart-healthy diet, Mixa has no lifestyle factors that need to be changed. She just needs to stay on her medication and watch for the full range of heart-related symptoms that she now knows about — thanks to personal experience and a timely refrigerator magnet.
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]