Learning Experiences in the ER: Heart Attacks in Women

nurseIn the movies, heart attacks are easy to spot. A man clutches his chest, gasps for air, and then keels over. In reality, heart attacks don’t just affect men. Women can have them too, and they generally aren’t as dramatic. This is what makes spotting a heart attack in a woman so difficult.

When you work in the ER as a nurse or CNA, however, it will be your job to know exactly what a heart attack looks like so you can get your patient the treatment she needs right away.

What is a Heart Attack?

About every 34 seconds, someone has a heart attack. This problem occurs when oxygen is cut off from accessing the heart muscle, or is at least severely reduced. Most often, this is the result of blocked arteries. When arteries are blocked by plaque, fat, or cholesterol, blood can’t travel to the heart as easily, or at all. The oxygen in the blood is essential for a healthy and functioning heart, and without it, a heart attack occurs.

A Heart Attack and a Nurse

I recently read a story written by an ER nurse who had a female patient come into the ER in the middle of the night. The woman was experiencing lightheadedness, pressure in her upper abdomen, extreme fatigue, and upper back pressure. She’d come alone, leaving her husband asleep in their bed at home. She was sure what she was experiencing was nothing serious, and she didn’t want to trouble her husband, who had to get up early for work the next day, with an unnecessary trip to the ER she could make herself.

She thought perhaps she just had the flu and needed some IV fluids.

Luckily, the ER nurse quickly put two-and-two together. A visit from the doctor and a quick test later, it was confirmed: the woman was in the middle of having a heart attack and needed attention right away.

Know-how Nurse: Signs of a Heart Attack

Would you be as quick in your assessment as the nurse in the story above was? After CNA training and nursing school, it’s important that you understand what a heart attack in a woman can look like, especially if you are working in an ER.

The first thing you should understand is that heart attacks in men and women can both look the same sometimes. They can have symptoms like:

  • Pressure, squeezing, or chest pain. This can occur for only a few minutes and go away. It can even go away and come back.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Discomfort or pain in one or both arms, the neck, the stomach, or the jaw
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cold sweats

While men are much more likely to experience chest pain as a symptom of a heart attack, women often experience the other symptoms associated with this issue, with or without chest pain. Many often contribute their symptoms to acid reflux, the flu, or simply getting older. If they’ve made the trip to the ER, though, it will be your job as a nurse or health care assistant to determine quickly if the symptoms line up to a heart attack. If they do, the patient must be given treatment as soon as possible to reduce the damage caused and even save their life.

Would you know how to identify a heart attack in a female patient? Make sure you understand when you become a nurse what symptoms to look out for so your patients can receive the treatment they need.


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