Grandmother's Back Pain Offers Lesson in Heart Health

Wake-Up Call

Jean Cherry's back pain turned out to be the push she needed to jumpstart her healthy lifestyle.


Physical aches and pains are nothing for Jean Cherry.

"I mostly ignore them …a high threshold for pain runs in my family,” said the sixty-five-year old Wilmington grandmother.

But then there were a few pains Cherry couldn’t ignore.

After having back pain earlier in the day, “I was watching TV and had this awful throbbing pain in my arm,” said the former coronary bypass patient. “I had this horrible feeling I was going to die.”

Cherry went directly to New Hanover Regional Medical Center, where she was admitted for symptoms consistent with a heart attack. “Recognizing what was happening before it happened and going to the hospital probably saved my life,” said Cherry.

After a series of lab and diagnostic tests, Cherry was moved to the NHRMC Heart Center and a specially-designed interventional suite for heart patients. Here, in NHRMC’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory – cath lab, for short – Cherry underwent a technically advanced procedure wherein a thin flexible tube, or catheter, is inserted into the heart through a blood vessel in the groin.

And not a moment too soon, said Cherry, as the procedure showed almost complete blockage of two of Cherry’s main arteries. The fix: placement of three stents, or mesh scaffolding-like tubes that expand to keep vessels open and blood flowing. This treatment, called balloon angioplasty, saved her life.

For many women, the signs and symptoms of heart attack can be very different from what their male counterparts may experience.

Jean Cherry and Granddaughter

“There are many reasons for this,” said NHRMC Heart Center cardiologist Michael Moeller, MD, who performed Cherry’s angioplasty. “As primary caretakers, women often forgo their own healthcare needs. In addition, since heart disease and heart attack have historically been labeled a ‘man’s’ disease, many women don’t know the signs and symptoms, and fail to get the proper tests and screenings they need to detect and treat it.”

In the case of heart attack, men experience more “classic” symptoms, such as massive chest discomfort and shortness of breath, said Dr. Moeller. A woman’s heart attack symptoms are often atypical, such as fatigue; severe shortness of breath; back, neck, or jaw pain; indigestion not related to eating or a feeling of anxiety.

“I had three warning signs that night that clued me in that I might be having a heart attack,” said Cherry.

“There was the throbbing arm pain, but also a sharp pain in my back and a funny, weird anxious feeling like I was going to pass out.”

“It’s important for every woman to know their risk for heart disease and heart attack, and know how symptoms experienced by women may differ from those experienced by men” said Dr. Moeller. “Women have to be their own heart health advocates.”

Months out from her procedure and doing fine, Cherry – aka “Mimi” to her granddaughter – has adopted a new, heart-healthy lifestyle, including participating in NHRMC’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program.

“I’m a survivor,” she said. “I’m proof that you can change your life for the better, because there’s a lot in life to be thankful for.”