Young heart attack survivor inspired to advocate for heart health, research

November 15, 2019 chris
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By Sarrah Peters, News Editor

Traci Gunter was only 23 when her life changed forever.

On Wednesday, April 24, Gunter was driving through traffic, headed to work. While stopped at a red light, she started to sweat profusely.

“I was thinking, ‘What in the world?’” said Gunter. “It was just so hot. So, I pulled my hair up. Then, my left arm and chest started to hurt.”

Gunter could tell that this was not normal, so she turned towards Gadsden Regional Medical Center, which was only about three minutes away.

When she was almost to the hospital, right near the sign, she started to black out and then although conscious, could no longer move her body.

“Somehow, I pulled over to the side,” said Gunter. “Apparently, I was told this, but I don’t remember it, I got out of the car and started flagging people down, then I collapsed.”

Two nearby men who were mowing lawns came to help her. A lady stopped her car, and the men loaded her into the back of Gunter’s car which the lady drove to the emergency room.

“I never found out who the lady was,” said Gunter. “It’s always been a mystery. I always say that she was my angel, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get there and be helped.”

At the emergency room, Gunter heard the lady tell staff that she thought Gunter was having a heart attack.

“I remember thinking, ’There’s no way, I’m 23, there is no way I am having a heart attack,” said Gunter.

Gunter was rushed to the back and medical staff confirmed that she was in the midst of a heart attack. Gunter, in and out of consciousness, when asked by medical staff who they could contact was able to tell staff to use her cell phone to call her parents.

“I’ve always struggled with really bad anxiety, but that was the most calm I’ve ever been in my entire life,” said Gunter. “I just felt like, and this is faith-based, that I knew where I was going if I were to leave. I was content.”

Although, Gunter’s memory of the heart attack was spotty, she remembers reassuring her mother that she was fine, no matter what happened.

Gunter was transported to the catheter lab and woke up surrounded by medical staff. Once awake, Gunter was told that she had a heart attack and that a stent was placed in her left anterior descending (LAD) artery, also known as the widow-maker artery due to its high death rate.

“It’s called SCAD, and that means spontaneous coronary artery dissection,” said Gunter. “Anyone can have it, but it’s mostly found in young women. A lot of time it’s caused by emotional stress or hormonal changes.”

Because hormones can trigger SCAD, Gunter was checked for pregnancy, which often coincides with this diagnosis. Gunter was not pregnant and was told that the artery might have just been weak since birth. Gunter said that if and when she prepares to conceive, she will have to be closely monitored because pregnancy can strain the heart.

“It causes stress on any woman’s heart in general, but for me to have that issue, I have to watch it even more.”

Gunter spent about a week in the hospital and now takes seven medicines a day.

After her experience, Gunter was inspired to get involved with the American Heart Association.

“I want to spread awareness about heart health to everyone, but especially young women,” said Gunter. I’m a young female, and I never expected anything like that to happen. I just want people to know it doesn’t matter how old you are or what physical shape you are in. 

“I weighed only 108 pounds when it happened. It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t discriminate. I really like to spread awareness to young women, as well, especially because it happened to me, and it can happen to them.”

As part of her advocacy with the American Heart Association, Gunter was chosen to travel to Washington D.C., from October 16 through 18 for Lobby Day, where she spoke to lawmakers about the association’s policy agenda and shared her story. Gunter spoke to staff for U.S. Senator Doug Jones, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, U.S. Representative Greg Palmer, U.S. Representative Martha Roby and U.S. Representative Robert Aderholt. Gunter also spoke directly to representatives Palmer, Roby and Aderholt.

“It was very interesting to see their professional view on our policies that we were presenting,” said Gunter.

The American Heart Association presented three policies, including a policy on NIH funding, which is funding for research; on surprise or balance billing, which is when you receive emergency treatment unknowingly outside of your healthcare network resulting in a large, surprise bill; and on a flavor ban for tobacco products. Gunter presented her story to encourage NIH funding for research for conditions like SCAD or congenital heart diseases that people are not aware of.

“I love working with the American Heart Association,” said Gunter. “It’s something that is really important to me.”

Gunter will be speaking at the Gadsden Heart Walk on April 9.

For more information about heart attack or stroke symptoms, information about the American Heart Association and volunteer opportunities, visit heart.org and yourethecure.org.