If you’ve only gotten to know Lori Nierman within the last couple of years or so, there’s something that you might not know about her.
Nierman, 49, survived a heart attack in 2006. As the spokesperson for February’s American Heart Association (AHA) Go Red event in Rochester, Nierman is ready to tell her story.
It starts on Easter Sunday in 2006. After returning home from a family event, Nierman noticed “a weird feeling behind my shoulder blades, kind of like a burning.” No stranger to recurring back pain, Nierman dismissed it.
The pain in Nierman’s back continued intermittently through Monday and Tuesday. That Tuesday, Nierman’s arm went numb while she was walking laps over her lunch hour at the Apache Mall.
Did it cross her mind that she might be having a heart attack?
“No,” she said. “Never.” In fact, when her arm went numb, she just hooked her thumb under her bra strap to see if that would help and kept walking.
Wednesday arrived and Nierman was still experiencing occasional pain that seemed to get worse when she exerted herself. That morning, she went to the Emergency Room (ER) at Olmsted Medical Center.
Though the initial tests were inconclusive and the ER doctor urged Nierman to stay for monitoring, she declined, promising to follow up with future stress tests.
“I stated to him that since I’m not having a heart attack, I don’t want to stay and I will follow up with the tests,” she said.
“To this day, I still didn’t think it was a heart attack. Why?” It was hard for Nierman to fathom that she could have a heart attack at 43. “I’m young.”
Maybe it’s bird flu
That evening, Nierman went to her son’s baseball game at Mayo High School. Her symptoms escalated, leaving her sweaty and dizzy.
Spring 2006 also coincided with the threat of bird flu in Minnesota. “And I thought, ‘I’m the first one in Rochester who has the bird flu,’” she said. Nierman called her husband, Larry, who was already at the game, to drive her back to the ER.
The second ER visit was conclusive: Nierman was having a heart attack.
“All holy hell went loose,” Nierman said, describing the moments following the electrocardiogram (EKG) test that revealed she was having a heart attack. “People were shoving aspirins in my mouth, trying to get me to chew … The first thing out of my mouth was ‘am I going to die?’ and then—” Nierman lifted up her hands. “I just let it go,” she said. “I mean, ‘what the hell am I going to do?’ Excuse my French.”
An ambulance transported Nierman to Saint Marys Hospital where doctors placed a stent in her middle left anterior descending artery. This artery, also known as the “widow maker” for the fatalities that typically occur when this artery is obstructed, was 95 percent blocked.
Reluctant to tell her story
Although a myriad of factors contribute to heart attacks and heart disease, Nierman points to her former pack-a-day smoking habit.
She has been smoke free since her heart attack.
“I was having my last cigarette at the ball field as I was having a heart attack,” Nierman said. “That was the last cigarette
In addition to kicking her smoking habit, Nierman incorporates more walking into her daily routine and has reduced sodium in her diet.
Nierman’s heart attack resulted in 0.2 percent damage to her heart, which does not require any specialized cardiology follow up. Her care can be continued by her family doctor.
There are not many people in Nierman’s life who know about her heart attack. This is partly due to a switch in jobs since her heart attack. Also, it’s hard to imagine this vibrant wife and mom of two kids sidelined by any kind of health issue.
In fact, when Nierman was originally approached to act as spokesperson for Rochester’s Go Red event, her first reaction was to decline. A friend encouraged her to get involved and to share her story.
Why was she reluctant?
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” she said. “Is it more of a private thing? I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want people
looking at me like I have a disease. It’s a mix of everything.”
So why share her story now?
“Probably because of that comment my girlfriend said: ‘If you can save one life by telling your story. Why not?’”
Women, Don’t Assume It’s Nothing
Getting women to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack is part of the American Health Association’s “Go Red” campaign, celebrated in February to increase awareness of heart disease in women of all ages.
Dr. Niloufar Tabatabaei, cardiologist at Olmsted Medical Center, applauds the education and awareness that the Go Red campaign promotes.
“It is good that women are becoming more aware of the issue,” Tabatabaei said. “The more education we have, the more prevention we can have.”
Part of this education is recognizing the risk factors that contribute to heart disease — obesity, hypertension and diabetes among them. Another part is getting women to recognize the signs of a heart attack.
According to the AHA, some signs of a heart attack are:
Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest.
It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
You don’t need permission
If you or a loved one is displaying any of these symptoms, call 911 and get to a hospital right away.
“Time is of the essence. We say in the cardiology world that time is myocardium. The sooner you get in, the more heart (muscle) we can save,” said Tabatabaei.
“Sometimes I hear ‘Well, what if I go in (to the Emergency Room) and it’s not a heart attack?’ If you have a question, please come in and let us figure it out,” Tabatabaei said.
“There is no wrong time to go in” if a person is showing the symptoms of a heart attack, said Kristi Ristau, cardiology nurse at OMC. “It’s wrong to stay home. You don’t need permission to seek medical attention.”
Making heart health fun
In addition to OMC’s non-invasive cardiology services, OMC plans to offer cardiopulmonary rehabilitation services in early 2012 at the Northwest Clinic’s Physical Therapy/Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation area.
What can a person expect in cardiovascular rehab?
“Each person will have a specific exercise protocol based on their history and a cardiac stress test,” said Andy Wood, OMC Physical Therapist/Occupational Rehab Specialist.
The stress test will help to determine the patient’s exercise tolerance and will help to develop a “specific exercise prescription that is tailored to their lifestyle, capacity and so forth,” he said.
Additional factors include whether a patient has a pacemaker, current medications and potential orthopedic problems that might rule out certain pieces of exercise equipment.
“To have good cardiovascular health, you do not necessarily have to run a marathon. That is not for the general population of cardiovascular patients to do that. That’s sort of intimidating. I don’t want to intimidate people,” Wood said. “I want to get people back to having fun at it. I like to add things to people’s life” when it comes to healthy activities.
Michelle Kubitz is a freelance writer based in Rochester.