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A survivor: Md. woman urges education on heart health

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Andrea Wongsam was 35 years old and 13 weeks pregnant when her life changed forever.

She was driving to work and suddenly felt what she thought was a horrible bout of morning sickness. By the time she got to her office, her chest was burning, her jaw was tight and her left arm was completely numb.

“I ignored all those signs that were classic for a heart attack…I mistook them for my morning sickness gone haywire,” she says.

After more than six hours of symptoms, she went to an urgent care center. There, tests showed that a blockage had stopped the blood flow to the left side of her heart.

She was airlifted to Johns Hopkins Hospital for emergency surgery, and spent 10 days in intensive care.

“Unfortunately, during that time I ended up losing the baby,” she says. “My heart was too weak to sustain life for both of us.”

Wongsam says she did not have a clue that she was at risk for a heart attack, despite having a rare blood disorder in which her bone marrow is overactive. Her pregnancy, combined with the overproduction of platelets, caused a clot in an artery.

Looking back, Wongsam regrets not knowing the warning signs of a heart attack.

There was “no way I could wrap my mind around having a heart attack that day,” she says. “Absolutely none.”

But out of that tragedy came the start of “a great journey.”

Now, Wongsam has a defibrillator and takes cardiac medication, “like somebody who has heart disease.”

Wongsam says she remembers hearing the doctors counting her life expectancy in minutes, and says she began to realize how important it was to share her story and educate other young women about the signs of heart trouble.

“Had I been educated, I do believe that my outcome would have been a lot less tragic,” she says. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone ever.”

Wongsam started by looking for information on the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women website. In time, she became a spokeswomen for the Go Red campaign, urging others to learn the facts about heart health.

“Had I known what the signs of a heart attack were, I definitely would have gotten to the hospital, sought that medical attention that I truly needed, and hopefully the outcome would have been a lot different,” she says.

And still, there is not a trace of bitterness in her voice as she curls up in a corner of a sofa in her Kensington home and thinks about all that has happened.

“You do realize that at any minute you could be gone…and just how precious being here truly is.”

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)