When asked the symptoms of a heart attack, many at UMB would respond chest pain, shortness of breath, shooting pain in the arm.
But jaw pain? That was a lesson Mark T. Van Ditta, MS, senior enterprise application developer in the Center for Information Technology Services (CITS), learned firsthand recently.
Not recognizing his primary symptom — dental pain — to be an indicator of coronary problems, Van Ditta experienced what is called a “silent heart attack” and did not realize it until weeks later.
Now after open-heart surgery and back to work in CITS, where he has worked for the past 15 years as a systems professional, the past three managing the technical side of student information systems, Van Ditta is eager to tell his story so that others can protect themselves, too.
An active 55-year-old, Van Ditta spends lots of his free time biking, lifting weights, and trying to eat healthily, especially in light of his diabetes and low HDL (high-density lipoproteins).
In August, he began to experience jaw pain about five minutes into his bike rides starting with a particularly rigorous outing where he had trouble catching his breath after putting his bike away. At the time, he thought maybe he should consult a dentist.
Days and weeks passed, and still the jaw pain persisted. He Googled his symptoms, which pointed to angina, defined by the American Heart Association as “chest pain or discomfort caused when your heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood,” oftentimes presenting as jaw pain. Van Ditta’s concern skyrocketed, even though only 10 years prior, he had had a nuclear stress test that showed his heart to be in tiptop shape. But he did appreciate that, as a diabetic, heart attacks often register differently than they do for a “normal” person, so he saw a cardiologist.
Van Ditta describes late September as a blur. In a matter of 10 days, his visit to the cardiologist revealed his heart attack, he had a cardiac catheterization that showed three of his main arteries were blocked between 80 and 95 percent, and he underwent triple bypass surgery.
After five challenging days in the hospital, life slowed down significantly and gave Van Ditta time to reflect on the realization that this condition could have ended his life. The blockage in his left anterior descending artery is often referred to as the “widow maker” because many people do not survive this extensive obstruction.
Van Ditta reflects, “The first thing I remember when I woke up was a nurse asking me to cough. Cough, I thought? I cannot even breathe!”
Undeniably, Van Ditta admits that an experience like this changes a person. He now has a mission to spread the word about the silent killer. In September before his surgery he sent a letter to the Office of the President that read in part: “It would mean a lot to me if Dr. Perman would take time to mention the signs and dangers of silent heart attacks in one of his future newsletters. … I ignored the signs that I had experienced a silent heart attack for six weeks because I did not experience the textbook symptoms of a heart attack.”
Those symptoms include:
- chest pressure/heaviness
- shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, and/or back pain
- shortness of breath
- extreme fatigue
“If you do not pay attention to the symptoms,” Van Ditta adds, “you could follow in my footsteps or fare worse. I finally felt relief when my 16-year-old twin daughters were able to see me up and moving again. It was scary for all of us!”