Beth Shelburne had spent the day finishing a big story. But when the 6 p.m. news ran, her story didn't. Beth, then an anchor and investigative reporter at WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama, "left work in an angry huff," she writes on WBRC.com, feeling that her 11-hour day had been wasted. On her way home, she stopped at the grocery store. While there she began to feel hot and clammy and experienced a tightening in her throat and chest, "like invisible hands were trying to choke me." She chalked the experience up to a panic attack — something she'd experienced as a college student decades earlier — and headed home.
At home, Beth's symptoms intensified. She began to sweat. The pain "squeezed and radiated into my arms, jaw and eventually my teeth, like an electric current traveling through my body," she writes. Beth took a bath — and two aspirin — and eventually the symptoms went away. She told herself it couldn't have been a heart attack. She was "a healthy 43-year-old who exercised and ate vegetables." But the experience nagged at her, so the next morning she researched both heart attack and panic attack. Her symptoms fell squarely on the heart attack list. That's when, she writes, "I felt my first thread of ice cold fear."
Beth asked her husband, Kevin, to take her to the emergency department. Over the next three days, she underwent a series of tests and was eventually diagnosed with spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, a type of heart attack caused by a tear in one of the blood vessels in the heart. She also learned she had a coronary fistula, "an abnormal connection between an artery and a chamber of the heart." Beth was sent home with medication, told most SCADs heal on their own, and was told to follow up with a local cardiologist.
But the longtime reporter was not satisfied with the information or plan and decided to do her own research, which led her to Mayo Clinic. "Many of the SCAD survivors I met online had been there, and Mayo was undertaking the largest SCAD research project in the country," Beth writes. She scheduled an appointment with Sharonne Hayes, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo who she says is "considered a hero in the SCAD community." At that appointment, Beth learned her heart had healed. But she received a new diagnosis: fibromuscular dysplasia, a common underlying condition among SCAD survivors.
Dr. Hayes "spent over an hour answering all my questions," Beth writes. The conversation would prove life-changing, as it nudged her to think about the pressures of her job. "The pressure to deliver the news while looking and sounding perfect had come at a cost," she writes. "I was tired of the struggle and ready to start a new chapter."
After recovering from surgery to correct her fistula (Mayo's Charanjit Rihal, M.D., did the honors), Beth has done just that. She continues to tell stories, but now does so behind the scenes as a digital producer and reporter. "Grace can arrive in many forms," she writes. "For me, my SCAD saved my life. My life took on a new urgency to live each day by following my heart and above all, loving myself and all my imperfections, wonky arteries and all."
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