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Recognizing the Widowmaker Heart Attack

Fans of the television series “This is Us” finally found out how Jack Pearson, the father, died, but they still had a lot of questions that weren’t related to the episode. After saving his family, the dog and precious mementos from a house fire, Jack died from a sudden heart attack, commonly known as a widowmaker. Although long-time viewers already knew the character, who was always seen in flashbacks, had died, they were devastated. How could a catastrophic heart attack affect such a young and seemingly healthy person? Online searches for the term “widowmaker” surged 5000% after the show aired.

Although the show is fictitious, the widowmaker is real, with its name symbolizing how fatal it can be---for men and women.

What is a widowmaker heart attack?

The heart contains three main arteries, the left anterior descending artery (LAD), the right coronary artery and the circumflex artery. The LAD supplies the most blood to the heart. A blockage in the LAD can cause ventricular tachycardia (an unnaturally fast heartbeat) or ventricular fibrillation, which impairs effective pumping of blood from the heart. 

While blockages in the other two arteries are also serious, a blockage in the LAD affects a large segment of the heart, potentially causing catastrophic tissue damage and leading to the name the widowmaker (also called the LAD proximal lesion).

Widowmakers, like all heart attacks, can strike anyone. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. That’s why it is important to know the risk factors and the symptoms. 

Risk factors for a heart attack include: 

  • Age—men 45 or older and women 55 or older are at a higher risk
  • Smoking—both first hand and long-term exposure to secondhand smoke
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of early heart attacks
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Obesity
  • Stress
  • Illegal use of stimulant drugs

While many people think a heart attack starts with a stabbing pain in the chest, the symptoms can also be varied and subtle, and include:

  • Chest pressure, with pain radiating to the arm, neck, jaw or back
  • Shortness of breath with or without activity
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Clamminess
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden sweating even without exercising

What should you do if you have symptoms of a heart attack?

If you have any of the above symptoms, call or have someone call 911. Do not try to drive yourself to the hospital. Not only do you put yourself and anyone else on the road at risk if you are understandably distracted or become incapacitated, paramedics can get to you sooner and begin treatment immediately. 

In the timeline for “This is Us,” Jack’s heart attack occurred more than thirty years ago. Much has changed in the ability to diagnose and treat heart attacks since then. In today’s environment, if you get to the hospital and get diagnosed, you have a good chance of recovery. Doctors can do a coronary intervention to open up the blocked artery and restore blood flow; and provide medicines to decrease new blockages, address damage to the heart tissue and help the heart recover. 

A widowmaker—and any kind of heart attack—is serious, but by paying attention to the symptoms and moving quickly to get treatment, it shouldn’t be fatal.

Heart Disease Prevention Guide

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