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Hospital foundation director recalls heart attack at 47

Kathy Alexander’s entire life changed on the afternoon of August 25, 2023 as she drove her daughter home from camp.

“There was nothing unusual, nothing stressful,” she said. Then suddenly, she felt excruciating pain in the middle of her back.

“I thought at first it was a pinched nerve.” As a runner with no previous health issues and only age 47, a heart attack didn’t seem possible.

But the pain moved to her chest and became so extreme that it felt like a fork was being pushed into her body.

“So I decided to go home and lay down,” said Alexander, who was guest speaker at the Sarnia Community Foundation’s Women of Excellence luncheon on Thursday.

Wrong move.  She soon realized she should have gone straight to the emergency department.

“I couldn’t breathe. I collapsed on the floor,” she said, becoming tearful at times during her presentation. She managed to crawl to her front lawn where her neighbour assisted until Alexander’s husband Tony arrived.

“He ran into the house and gave me an aspirin that I chewed right away,” she said. “The aspirin was an absolute lifesaver.” Now she keeps a keychain holder containing two aspirin with her at all times.

At emergency, Alexander said she was immediately rushed to the trauma room – or red zone. The seriousness of the situation hit her hard.

“My father died from a heart attack at a young age and I realized I could die,” she said. 

After two EKGs, emergency physician Dr. Jim Grochowski came to speak to her.

“He told me, ‘This is scary to hear. You are actively having a heart attack,’” Alexander related. 

But he also assured her that the healthcare team would take excellent care of her. “His kindness, his demeanour, put me at ease.”

She was quickly taken to London’s cardiac care unit by ambulance and stabilized overnight. 

Her diagnosis?

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a condition that occurs when a tear forms in the wall of a heart artery.

Ninety per cent of people who experience SCAD are women in their late 40s and early 50s, and women who have recently given birth, said Alexander.

People who experience SCAD often don’t have any risk factors for heart disease. It can lead to a heart attack and can cause sudden death if not promptly treated.

Alexander is hoping to be part of a SCAD study but is waiting on that. Meanwhile, she said she wants to raise awareness and urge others not to ignore symptoms of a heart attack.

“If I hadn’t gone to the hospital, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said.

Following the SCAD, Alexander spent six weeks away from her job as executive director of the Bluewater Health Foundation. She disconnected from stress as much as possible, and refocused on her husband and two daughters.

She also graduated from the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program offered through North Lambton Community Health Centre.

She’s now on meds, likely for the rest of her life.

“I know it’s hokey to say, but every day is a gift,” she said. “Women, if you don’t put yourself first, you may not be here.

“I love my career and I love making a difference in my community,” added Alexander, admitting she’s always been very career driven. 

“Now I recognize the importance of self-care and the importance of the people who are in your life.

“There’s nothing like a heart attack to put things in perspective.”

Kathy Alexander was guest speaker at the Women of Excellence luncheon attended by about 210 at the Dante Club Thursday.

The Sarnia Community Foundation honoured seven 2024 Women of Excellence at the Dante Club Thursday:

Hospital foundation director recalls heart attack at 47
The Sarnia Community Foundation honoured seven 2024 Women of Excellence at the Dante Club Thursday.  From left are: Foundation Executive Director Mike Barron, Erin Miller Hawryluk, Emily Denham Weed, Emily Bright, Laurel Pickel-Kittmer, Marilyn Gifford, Susan Chamberlain and Jeannette Douglas. Cathy Dobson photo

Susan Chamberlain (Sarnia) – Susan exemplifies positive leadership and contributes in many ways to the cultural growth of Sarnia as well as contributing economically as an entrepreneur.  Susan is the owner of two businesses in Sarnia, The Book Keeper and Poppies Gift Shop. She is a leader in promoting 2SLGBTQI + and inclusiveness in our community.  She also organizes and hosts a Lambton Literacy fundraiser and is a former board member with the Lawrence House.

Marilyn Gifford (Sarnia) – Marilyn works tirelessly to bring awareness to the doctor shortage in Lambton County and across Canada.  She collected thousands of signatures to successfully petition for more medical residency placements in Sarnia/Lambton.

Jeannette Douglas (Brooke-Alvinston) – Jeannette can be found supporting and making her community better with her strong voice and serving those most vulnerable. For nearly a decade, she has helped organize a free community meal during winter months and at Christmas.  Jeannette served a term on council and has planned Canada Day events for the entire community to enjoy.

Laurel Pickel-Kittmer, Erin Miller Hawryluk, Emily Bright and Emily Denham Weed (Petrolia) – These four women saw a need and took action to raise funds for an accessible playground at Greenwood Park, which opened in 2022. They continue their ongoing effort to add a pavilion for shelter at the park.