Heart Disease Grabbed Her by the Throat

When Teresa Hamilton noticed a burning sensation in her throat and chest, heart disease was the furthest thing from her mind. But cardiologists at The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City revealed otherwise

Teresa HamiltonIn February 2017, Teresa Hamilton, 58, first experienced the frightening symptom that would end up saving her life.

"It was a massive pain in my throat," she says. "Like someone putting their hands around my neck and squeezing hard."

Over the next few weeks and months, Hamilton's perplexing throat episodes increased in frequency, intensity and duration. She also noticed a pattern to the pain. If she sat for a prolonged period, then walked a few steps, the tightness returned.

She didn't realize how sick she was. "I just kept doing the next thing that needed to get done."

Her to-do list was extensive. Hamilton co-owns the heating and cooling business she and her husband, Bob, started 36 years ago. She also runs a charitable organization called Giving the Basics that provides soap, shampoo and other hygiene products to more than 220,000 area residents every month. Plus, she is the mother of 12 children, ages 14-35.

Too young for heart disease

Hamilton suspected everything except heart disease. She started taking antacids in case her symptoms were caused by indigestion. She sought advice from her ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, family physician and gastroenterologist. 

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"I had every test under the sun," she says. "Blood pressure, CT scans, sonogram, endoscopy, MRI – and they all came back negative."

Fortunately, Hamilton's gastroenterologist encouraged her to get a heart stress test. In June 2017, Hamilton met with cardiologist Ashley Simmons, MD, medical director of the Adelaide C. Ward Women's Heart Health Center at The University of Kansas Health System.

"Teresa is physically fit, active, a real go-getter," Dr. Simmons says. "Heart disease was not on her radar."

Dr. Simmons discovered a few red flags in Hamilton's medical records. Her bloodwork indicated she had three risk factors for heart disease. In addition, her family history suggested a genetic predisposition for heart disease. Her father died of a heart attack at age 50. She also lost a brother to heart disease when he was just 55.

The right test and treatment

Dr. Simmons suggested a chemical stress test to evaluate Hamilton's throat tightness. The test showed severely decreased blood flow to her heart. Just hours after her test, she was admitted for a heart catheterization.

Interventional cardiologist Peter M. Tadros, MD, performed Hamilton's procedure and discovered severe coronary artery disease. Luckily, Dr. Tadros successfully opened her arteries with stents before the disease caused permanent damage. Had her condition gone undiagnosed, Hamilton could have experienced a massive heart attack or arrhythmia.

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A real threat for women

Like Hamilton, many women don't think of themselves as being at risk for heart disease. However, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in America, claiming more lives than all cancers combined.

Research shows that women often experience different symptoms than men. That's why Hamilton shares her story with family, friends and physicians. She wants everyone to know that unusual throat pressure and pain should be evaluated by a cardiologist.

Heart of the matter

Hamilton feels relieved and grateful that Dr. Simmons insisted on completing the stress test.

"Dr. Simmons worked hard to figure out this puzzle and she didn't stop searching until all the pieces were in place," she says. "I'm so thankful."

Today, Hamilton takes medication to maintain her heart health. She's also trying to bring more balance into her life by doing a little less than she used to.

"When you face the end, it gives you a different kind of freedom and courage. Life is a privilege and a gift. I feel blessed."