ST. PETERSBURG — When Lara Warn lines up Sunday for St. Anthony’s sprint triathlon, the 42-year-old will be thinking of the most terrifying day of her life and enjoying every step, stroke and kilometer.
“It is going to be emotional,” said Warn, who is competing in her first triathlon. “I am nervous. I don’t really know what I am doing, but it will be great. I can’t wait.”
Six months ago, she rushed to St. Anthony’s Hospital’s emergency room with shortness of breath and what she thought was indigestion, only to be told she was having a so-called widow maker heart attack, which occurs when the largest artery in the heart, the left anterior descending artery, becomes obstructed.
“I was sore from a previous workout the week before, and I felt like a weird, small pinch in my chest, but I chalked it up to being sore,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I ate something weird and I’m sore.’ … I wasn’t in that much pain. I was just uncomfortable. And as time went on, it was getting a little bit harder to breathe. But my symptoms were so mild and I was in the middle of a widow maker.
“It still blows my mind.”
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend, the St. Anthony’s Triathlon is a destination event for world-class athletes and amateurs. Last year’s winners, Matthew Sharpe and Paula Findlay, will compete with other professionals in the Olympic-distance triathlon for the $53,000 prize purse Sunday at North Shore and Vinoy parks.
Warn is tackling the sprint race (750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, 5k run) because she is grateful to St. Anthony’s; Jason Levine, the cardiologist who treated her; and physician assistant Samantha Radigan, who oversaw her recovery.
She also hopes her story will bring awareness that heart attacks in women generally present with different symptoms than seen in television and movies. She hopes to shatter any anxiety women have about seeking medical help.
“I’ve talked to many women who’ve survived heart attacks and it’s different for everyone. Yes, some have chest pains, but a lot, like me, don’t,” Warn said. “For me, it was like heartburn. I had a pinch in my chest. For another woman I talked to, it was back pain.
“The point is, we need to know our bodies and if anything is off, don’t be afraid to go seek help. I know especially women, we don’t want to be embarrassed if we go to the emergency room and it’s nothing. I hope it’s kind of breaking that stigma, to have the fear of looking stupid, because that’s not even a thing.”
Levine said that by participating in the triathlon, Warn is also showing there is a healthy, vibrant life for heart attack survivors, no matter their age.
“A lot of people think having a heart attack, the quality of your life, it’s going to change. In some aspects it does, but I think if we’re all vigilant in followup care and changing lifestyle and being very proactive, you could resume the life that (you’re) accustomed to, prior to having a heart attack,” Levine said. “I think that’s exactly what she’s doing and it’s great to see.”
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It wasn’t easy for Warn, who owns Pup Active, an online apparel company for dog lovers, to get to this point. Back on Oct. 24, she was just beginning her morning spin workout when her symptoms began. She went home early, took a shower and decided to lie down.
The shortness of breath and the feeling that something was definitely not right finally sent her to St. Anthony’s.
“I have some heart damage. I waited to go to the hospital and Dr. Levine saved me by the skin of my teeth,” she said. “I’ll never forget (Radigan) bluntly telling me how many EMTs find people dead with (antacids) all around them because they thought their heart attack was heartburn.”
Levine cleared her completely blocked artery and inserted two stents. In total, she was at St. Anthony’s for just 40 hours, then sent home to recover. With Radigan monitoring her, Warn, a former athlete, slowly began returning to workouts and physical activities within a month.
In January, friends mentioned they were doing the triathlon. Warn was cleared by Radigan and her medical team to also compete.
“It will be an emotional day for me. I will be surrounded by people, friends I love, I will be thinking about Dr. Levine and Sam (Radigan) and that day,” Warn said. “It will kind of be full circle for me. It’s six months since I had the heart attack and I feel like this is me taking back my power, my life.
“And I am just so grateful to be here, to be alive.”
40th annual St. Anthony’s Triathlon
Sunday, North Shore and Vinoy parks, St. Petersburg
Olympic distance race (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), 6:50 a.m.; sprint race (750-meter swim, 20K bike, 5K run), 8:45 a.m.
Notable: The Sports and Fitness Expo is held at Vinoy Park all three days (noon-6 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday). The Meek & Mighty race, for children ages 7-10, is 7:30 a.m. Saturday at North Shore Pool. For more information, including details about any changes due to inclement weather, visit satriathlon.com.