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Lisa Sitarz’s tendency to tough things out almost did her in when she tried to manage the symptoms of an assumed panic attack on her own last December.

The 51-year-old recalls shortness of breath, nausea, and the way her arms, neck, and jaw began aching as she was cleaning her house one Sunday afternoon. As a sales representative and recent divorcee who had moved to Portage from Illinois two months earlier, she chalked all that up to overwrought nerves and turned to meditation for relief. “Not once did I think heart attack,” she says.

Her symptoms waxed and waned but didn’t go away. After a fitful night’s sleep, she went to work the next day at Powersource Transportation in Griffith, where concerned co-workers persuaded her to see a doctor. Her colleague Nicole Ladwig referred her to Family Specialty Medical Center in Highland. After an assessment from Dr. Wail Asfour and nurse practitioner Lori Turner, Sitarz was sent to Community Hospital’s emergency room, where it was confirmed she’d had a heart attack.

“I always thought of a heart attack as the guy clutching his chest and collapsing on the ground,” Sitarz says. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I can take a fair amount of pain, and what I experienced didn’t hurt like I thought a heart attack would. I still managed to go to work until I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Turner says Sitarz isn’t alone in not knowing the full range of heart attack symptoms: “Even though men are at higher risk of a heart attack than women, it’s important that everyone knows the risk factors and signs of a heart attack. It is more likely for women to present without chest pain and have other symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, sweating, nausea, and shortness of breath.”

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When Turner examined Sitarz, she suspected cardiac trouble and ordered an electrocardiogram. She consulted with Asfour, a cardiologist, who sent Sitarz to Community. She was shocked to learn she had suffered a heart attack and had 90-percent blockage in her arteries.

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Besides regular checkups, it's also important to know the symptoms of a heart attack and seek help immediately for them, Turner says.

Women also have to stop worrying they'll be perceived as “crazy” or “hysterical,” which Sitarz says kept her from seeking medical help sooner. Reflecting on what she assumed were panic attack symptoms right after Thanksgiving, she tells “people to go to the doctor right away. Pay attention to your body. Don’t tough it out. You’re not being a hypochondriac for going to the doctor. Even if it ends up not being a major issue, it’s better to be wrong than dead.”

Two stents were put in, and Sitarz takes medications including a blood thinner and has modified her lifestyle. A heavy smoker since age 18, she threw out a full carton of cigarettes upon her discharge from the hospital and hasn’t smoked since. “I knew I could either quit or die," she said.

In addition, she eats a low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-carbohydrate diet and walks on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day. “I wish it hadn’t taken a heart attack to convince me to get healthy," she said, "but I’m glad it convinced me to take every step I can to stick around."

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