It may be surprising that the health-focused actress, who had always prioritized fitness and a balanced diet, went through an ordeal like this, but that's exactly why this is such an important read—heart disease can happen to anyone, no matter their lifestyle. Gender plays another role in Lucci's story—heart problems are typically thought of as a man's health issue, when, in fact, it is the #1 killer of women, more than all cancers combined.
Below, Lucci takes us through that fateful day.
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Photograph via @therealsusanlucci
I've never had any health issues. Then one day, three years ago, I was in a restaurant with my husband, waiting to be seated, and felt a slight pressure on my chest. I didn't think too much of it at the time, except that the discomfort radiated around my ribcage to my back, which was odd. It passed by the time we were seated at our table. But the same thing happened two weeks later. I remember asking myself, Do I have a new bra on? And, of course, I went home and checked and that wasn't it. You know, we tell ourselves stories sometimes. As women, we tend not to think anything is going on with us.
Then two weeks after that, while shopping for a friend's birthday present, I suddenly felt a pressure, like an elephant pressing on my chest. This time, I couldn't ignore it. I sat down on a little bench in the boutique. The manager came up to me and asked if I was OK. I don't even know how she knew, but maybe it was my body language—I've known her for a long time. I thought back to a woman I had heard on TV many years ago, who talked about how a woman's symptoms of a heart attack can be different than a man's. I told the manager and she very calmly told me she could drive me to St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center, which was only a mile down the road—talk about good luck.
I called my husband's cardiologist, Dr. Richard A. Shlofmitz, who happens to be the head of cardiology at Saint Francis, and described what I was feeling. He told me to meet him in the emergency room. By the time I got there, which was just a couple of minutes, my symptoms had disappeared. I was so sure that the doctor would think I was overreacting and send me home. And I felt bad that I was taking this prominent doctor away from his patients. Even in the car, I was thinking to myself, This is probably going to go away, I have too much to do today… That's the thing with women—we often think it's nothing, it'll go away. We also don't put ourselves on our to-do list. We take care of our home, children, husbands and extended families… we are always last on that list.
The doctor gave me a CT scan and it turned out I had a 90% blockage in my main artery and a 75% blockage in the adjacent artery—much to my surprise because there were never any signs. I had had a full check-up recently and everything was fine, more than fine. That doctor had given me an EKG test, too, which was normal. Thank goodness I had a good cardiologist checking me out.
Dr. Shlofmitz said I needed surgery. I thought he meant in the morning because, by then, it was already late in the day. I thought I could get a good night's rest at home and come back in the morning. He said, "No, I don't think you understand. I'll be up all night thinking you had a heart attack."
So I had surgery that evening, at 10 PM, and had two stents put in. I was released by noon the next day. I was told I had avoided what they call the widow maker; I would have most likely had a fatal heart attack. I know if I had been home, instead of out, I would have thought I just needed to drink some water and lie down. I might not have woken up. I tell you, my guardian angels were with me that day. It turns out the manager from the store has her degree in nursing. I didn't even know that. But that's why she acted so quickly and calmly.
It turned out the blockage was not cholesterol. There's nothing that could have been discovered earlier in my check-ups. It was genetic—my dad had had a calcium blockage, which is what I wound up having. I never gave that as a family history so it came as a big surprise to me.
The doctor told me to keep up with the healthy diet and the exercise—and that has helped me. I'm very disciplined about what I eat. I mean, I'm going to have the occasional ice cream and pizza, but I'm very mindful of my diet. And I do some form of Pilates almost every day. It's important to be moving and not live a sedentary life. Physical exercise is also a great way to get rid of stress—and everybody's got some form of stress, right? That's a real thing that takes its toll.
The doctor who saved my life told me that nobody needs to die of a heart attack. After my experience, these are my main takeaways—really listen to your body, pay attention to whatever symptoms you may be having, and make sure you're doing the right things to take care of yourself. It's also important to have doctors you can rely on for questions and tests or whatever you need. It may even help to do a little Googling to find a good cardiologist in your area—while you're healthy. It's all a part of putting yourself on your to-do list. — Susan Lucci
A young Susan Lucci with her mother and father, via @therealsusanlucci