How to Tell If You or Someone You Know is Having a Heart Attack

Fred Sanford and his son, Lamont
Fred Sanford and his son, Lamont

Vanetta woke up one morning feeling a pain in her back, between her shoulder blades. Though it was painful and tremendously uncomfortable, she initially dismissed it as indigestion and continued to ready herself for her day. Despite profusely sweating, Vanetta managed to make, then swallow down breakfast. She also managed to drive herself to work and complete an eight hour shift at her job.

Once her eight hour shift was over, she was able to drive herself home, despite the numbing sensation she felt from her jaw, down her arm. She continued to feel this numbing sensation well after she got out of her car and walked up to her front porch where, upon reaching for the door, she collapsed.

Three days after collapsing on her front porch, Vanetta passed away at a Detroit-area hospital as a result of a heart attack.

The Heart of the Matter

Vanetta was my real life aunt, and her death still affects my family and I to this day. However, I do not want her death to be in vain, and for this reason, this article is not only dedicated to her, but to those that may need more help in understanding the symptoms of a heart attack.

With that being said, what exactly is a heart attack? According to the website, a heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely ( This severe reduction or complete cut off can be caused by a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances that, when mixed together, can create plaque in a person’s coronary arteries (

When a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque ( This blood clot can block the blood flow through the heart muscle, causing the body to become literally starved for oxygen (

While it is easy to describe why a heart attack happens, many have the challenge of discerning what the symptoms of a heart attack are; this is particularly true for women, who may ignore heart attack symptoms because they don’t want to inconvenience family members with their complaints. Women, in particular also feel that they must put their own discomfort aside as a way to provide for their families, as well as perform their duties at work.

According to page 31 of the American Red Cross’ First Aid/CPR/AED Participant’s Manual, it is important to know the following symptoms of a heart attack:

  • The victim may experience chest pain, discomfort and/or pressure. This, according to The American Red Cross’ First Aid/CPR/AED Participant’s Manual, is the most common signal of a heart attack. Be mindful that because it is hard to distinguish this symptom from the pain associated with indigestion, muscle spasms and/or other conditions, many may opt to either not get medical care or may even delay getting the care they need. However, one key thing that differentiates this symptom from common health ailments is that it usually consists pain that either comes and goes, or last longer than three to five minutes.


  • This pain can range from discomfort, to an unbearable crushing sensation in the chest. Often a person who is experiencing a heart attack may describe the feeling as a kind of intense pressure; they may also describe this pain as a squeezing, as well as a tightening in the chest. This, along with aching and heaviness in the chest may initially start slowly, and as a mild pain in the center of the victim’s chest.


  • In time, the pain becomes constant, and cannot be relieved by resting, nor by taking medication or changing your position and/or standing, etc.


  • The victim may experience discomfort in other areas of their body. For instance, this pressure or pain may also be felt in the victim’s shoulder, jaw, stomach, or back.


  • Victims also tend to have a hard time breathing. The person may be breathing faster than normal because their body is attempting to get more oxygen to the heart. This breathing may also be noisy, and appear to demonstrate that the victim is experiencing a shortness of breath.


  • A victim’s skin may become pale or ashen gray…especially around the face. In addition, a victim may began to excessively sweat, and complain that they feel dizzy and/or nauseous. They may also vomit, as well as suffer from fatigue, lightheadedness, and/or lose consciousness. These symptoms also indicate that the body is under stress because the heart is not working the way it should be working.


  • In women, key symptoms include atypical chest pain that is sudden, sharp, but short-lived pain that happens either between the shoulder blades or outside of the victim’s breastbone.


It is really important to notice these symptoms because often, a person (particularly women) may try to dismiss these symptoms as something minor. Further, the earlier the symptoms are recognized, the more likely the victim can get the help they need to survive.


About Heart Attacks.  American Heart Association, 2015 (

First Aid/CPR/AED Participant’s Manual, American Red Cross.  StayWell Health and Fitness Solutions, 2011.


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