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Unexpected Journey

After a deadly heart attack, marathon runner Leah Huss receives emergency care from The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City

Leah Huss can appreciate a good journey. The emergency room nurse has run marathons, taken trips with family and friends and spent hours helping patients navigate unexpected obstacles. Yet one particular trip – an emergency helicopter ride to The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City – was the start of her most challenging undertaking. It was Nov. 9, 2009, and Leah had suffered an unexpected massive heart attack at age 39.

The journey begins

An avid runner, Leah knew how great it felt to relax after a workout. So when she had trouble catching her breath after a daily run, she was scared.

She called a close friend who was a firefighter and described her symptoms. Her friend insisted she hang up and call 911. When paramedics arrived, they suspected a heart problem and suggested taking her to a Kansas City hospital. Leah insisted she go to the local hospital she worked at in Leavenworth.

"I didn't really think it could be something that big," she says.

An EKG proved otherwise. Leah had suffered a massive heart attack commonly referred to as "the widow maker." With no known history of diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease in her family, the diagnosis was a shock. She was quickly flown to The University of Kansas Health System for treatment.

Adelaide C. Ward Women's Heart Health Center

The Adelaide C. Ward Women's Heart Health Center provides a special environment for women's heart health. The facility provides services to prevent and reduce women's heart disease, including:

  • Heart health information
  • Nutrition and lifestyle counseling
  • Educational events and support groups

Expert care

Once Leah arrived at the hospital, interventional cardiologist Matthew Earnest, MD, performed a lengthy catheterization procedure. It revealed a 100% blockage of Leah's left anterior descending coronary artery and a 60% blockage and kink in her right coronary artery. Dr. Earnest placed stents in the vessels to open them, but the blockages had created other problems.

"Unfortunately, her symptoms had gone on a while without her realizing what they were," he says. "This caused her heart to be permanently damaged."

She would need a defibrillator to ensure her heart worked properly. In January 2010, heart rhythm specialist Rhea Pimentel, MD, implanted the device just beneath Leah's skin. The physician carefully positioned the scar low enough so Leah could wear a tank top or swimsuit – an important consideration for a young female patient.

"It's sometimes the little things," Leah says. "There were so many instances of doctors, nurses and staff taking time to make things better for me."

Finding a new pace

Blood tests revealed that Leah's genetic factors put her at high risk for another heart attack or stroke. But she knows she can manage her risk with medication and healthy habits.

"I won't be running marathons," she says. "But I will be exercising, running and living life!" Her defibrillator alerts her cardiology team of any unusual heart activity and helps her know her limits.

Because Leah's heart disease presented at a young age, doctors are looking at ways to help her prevent future heart attacks. As an academic medical center, The University of Kansas Health System participates in clinical research that may benefit Leah and others.

Women and heart disease

The hospital's women's heart health services are tailored to the needs of women, who often experience uncommon heart attack symptoms.

"Interpreting symptoms in women can be difficult," says Dr. Earnest. "Much of the yearly data regarding symptoms of angina and heart attack comes from clinical research years ago when men were the primary participants. We're still learning about symptoms, but we know that women do not follow as typical a pattern as men do."

Talk to your physician about your risk for heart disease, and report any unusual or persistent symptoms immediately.