Know the signs of heart attack: Butte woman shares her close-call experience
A mini-stroke and a knowledgeable daughter saved one Butte woman’s life.
Mary Berg went to the emergency room after her legs gave out. When she arrived, her symptoms subsided and her legs were working. However, what was happening within those arteries was something that could’ve been fatal, had it continued to go undetected. Luckily for this Butte woman, her daughter knew what to look for.
“My husband, Mark, took me to the emergency room, and then on the way up, he called my daughter, Jennie, who is a nurse in Denver, and she told her dad that she wanted to talk to the ER doctor. So, he ran the heart test and he was quite amazed that Jennie would know that I was having a heart attack.”
While leg pain is an uncommon sign of heart problems, even the more common symptoms can be surprising. Women are a little different when it comes to heart attacks — some have no symptoms, some feel indigestion, some have teeth or jaw pain, sometimes it’s back pain or shoulder pain and some people get a feeling of impending doom.
Deanna Montoya is a nurse at St. James and is also the chest pain coordinator. She said that since heart attack signs are so individual, the best thing you can do to prevent one is to see a doctor every year.
“Having a primary care provider is huge. I think everyone needs one. Everyone should have a yearly checkup, get their bloodwork checked and cholesterol levels checked,” she said.
Montoya said that was one big key that Jennie, a former St. James nurse, knew about her mother when she talked to the ER doctor that August day — she filled him in that Berg hadn’t been seeing a primary care provider regularly.
In the emergency room, the team checked Berg’s troponin levels and did an EKG to find out something was going on with her heart.
Berg was diagnosed with a TIA or transient ischemic attack. It’s a ministroke and happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is briefly blocked. They happen when plaque builds up in the main arteries causing them to narrow and restrict blood flow.
“A lot of times, if people get these plaque build ups in these arteries, they’re also getting them in their heart arteries and other arteries throughout their body,” said Montoya.
Once it was determined that Berg had had an NSTEMI, or a heart attack, she went to The Helmsley Charitable Trust Cardiovascular and Imaging Center at St James for more tests and a heart catheterization.
In the cath lab, the medical team is able to watch live video of Mary’s heart as a dye is pushed through her arteries to help determine where the narrowing or blockages are located. When necessary, the cath lab team can put in balloons or stents to expand the passage.
Berg’s heart would need more extensive work. She had triple vessel disease and left main disease and would need triple bypass surgery.
“Had she not had the TIA, she very well could’ve died out in the community,” said Montoya. “So she was very lucky to actually have had a TIA and we don’t really say people are lucky to do that, but in her case — it very well probably saved her life and her heart.”
Finding the problem was only the beginning of Berg’s cardiac journey. Next, she’d go to Missoula for open-heart surgery. During a bypass, a vein graph is taken from the leg then used to form a new flow system to move blood around the blockage to the heart.
Berg was scared.
“They cut your sternum. It’s pretty extensive. It was probably an 8-hour surgery. I woke up and I was glad to see I was awake,” said Berg. “Everybody my age should probably know the signs. I mean, if you’re feeling weird, just go up there. If you’re feeling not right, go to the ER.”
Montoya agrees, but she says that if anything is out of the ordinary, to call 9-1-1. Don’t drive. She said that if you lose consciousness on your way to the hospital, even if you have a driver, they won’t be much help if they’re behind the wheel. An ambulance is equipped with staff and supplies to get you there safely.
St. James had 71 heart attack patients last year,79 percent of those did not use 911 and, according to the National Cardiovascular Data Registry, the numbers nationwide are very similar and haven’t changed much in the last 20 years — only 20 percent use 911. When it comes to your heart, every second matters.
The triple bypass surgery was just the beginning of Berg’s cardiac journey, as she continued her recovery in the St. James Cardiac Rehab Center. They gave her reading material to learn about her heart and helped her get it stronger by developing an exercise plan. She then bought her own treadmill so she could continue the regimen at home. Six months later and Mary is walking a mile and a quarter every day.
She retired on January first and is taking life slow.
February is American Heart Month, a time when all people can focus on their cardiovascular health. You can help spread awareness by wearing red on Friday, February 4th for National Wear Red Day.
“I’m doing well. And thank God for St. James and for my daughter and for Deanna and everybody — they were so good to me.”
Written by McKayla Haack
McKayla is a Montana native who’s called Butte home for three years. She’s been sharing stories from Big Sky Country for nearly a decade and is honored to share the stories of St. James Healthcare patients and providers.