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Heart Attack vs. Acid Reflux: How Our Trip to the ER Taught Us the Difference and How To Be Prepared

Heart Attack vs. Acid Reflux: How Our Trip to the ER Taught Us the Difference and How To Be Prepared

After an hour and a half of sleep last Tuesday, I awoke to a gnarly feeling across my whole chest that grabbed both shoulders, clenched my ticker and wouldn’t let go. 

If that’s too manly of a description for ya, here’s a more feminine version: I felt a smidge of pressure around my décolleté with a petit side of warm fuzzies gently pushing on my heart.

Any-way… the point is I couldn’t sleep. Back, side, front, other side—didn’t matter. I couldn’t get comfortable and the pain intensified so I finally got up. Within minutes I stood in our family room staring at my phone arguing with myself about whether or not this was truly an emergency.

I’ve only called 911 about four times in my life, and never for myself. It felt strange and I second-guessed my decision all the way through the dialing. But since there are only three numbers and dispatchers always answer quickly, the calm woman picked up before I could hang up.

“9-1-1, what’s the address of your emergency?”

“Oh sorry, wrong number. I meant to call 4-1-1.”

Just kidding—I stayed serious and boring. But I realize now I continued to doubt myself even while we talked.

“Well, I’m not sure if it’s an emergency, but I’m having chest pain.”

And that’s when the lovely lady and I started our brief but meaningful relationship. “And what’s the address where you’re calling from?”

After reciting my address perfectly without a stutter or pause I knew I wasn’t dying. Then she asked me a few questions and ended with, “Ok, I’ve already dispatched the ambulance and I want you to stay on the phone with me. Do you have any aspirin?”

Instantly I thought I might be dying. “Oh really? I’m not sure I need an ambulance. Also, we only have baby aspirin.”

“That’s okay… chew four of them right away.”

This is the part where my husband comes in. I kinda felt bad about interrupting his sleep, but not the snoring, so I didn’t exactly try to stay quiet. He awoke to the sound of a tinfoil seal being broken on a tiny bottle of orange pills and his wife talking to a dispatcher.

She reminded me how swallowing an aspirin takes a while to dissolve in the stomach, but chewing baby aspirin delivers it to the bloodstream much faster. Which is exactly what you want if you’re having a heart attack.

Could this really be a heart attack? I’m not too young, but I’m fairly healthy and can’t imagine going down at this point in my life. Also, I don’t have time for this.

Then she asked if I had any other pain and I told her my right arm hurt all the way to my fingers, especially my bicep.

“Isn’t that weird?” I asked. “I thought it was supposed to be the left arm.”

“It can be either. The paramedics should be there any minute and I’m going to stay on the line with you.”

“Ok, but can you please ask them to turn off their lights and sirens? I don’t want to worry my neighbors.”

Exactly ten minutes from the time I called I saw red flashing lights reflected on my wall and heard a loud pshhhhh

“Oh my gosh. They brought a fire engine?”

“Yes, it’s standard procedure always to send an ambulance and fire engine.”

I said goodbye to the woman whose name I forgot to ask, and five men walked in our front door. Seemed a tad excessive, especially when I saw a gurney in my kitchen.

After placing a cuff on my arm and an O2 sensor on my finger, the you-don’t-look-old-enough-to-be doing-this guy placed about ten cold sticky tabs all over my skin from my collar bones down to my ankles. 

At this point I felt quite pleased with myself that I thought to put a bra on right before they arrived. No need to scare the green EMT and his four onlookers who tried to not look by busying themselves with nothing. 

Thanks for the respect, gentlemen. And for not cutting my favorite jammies. High five.

An octopus of cords came out of my shirt in two different directions and the colorful lights on the machine they hooked me up to blinked in different directions. Impressive, but I still felt terrible.

“Can you tell me about your medical history?”

I stared at him and couldn’t think of anything. “Umm… like what?”

“Anything. Have you ever had surgery? Are you allergic to any medications? Have you ever had chest pain before? Do you take any prescription drugs?”

When I answered “no” to every question he seemed intrigued. About two minutes later all the accessories came off and the men in blue packed up. 

“Your numbers all look good and you don’t have any markers to indicate a heart attack, but since this is unusual for you we recommend you still go to the ER. Would you like us to take you?”

Dollar signs flashed through my mind. “No thank you. My husband can take me.”

Welcome to the ER

If you’ve never witnessed the incredible variety of humans coming and going in an emergency room in the middle of the night, I’d highly recommend it. Five stars for sure. Next time I need material I think I’ll head down there on a Saturday around 2 am.

After an EKG, chest X-ray and being poked and prodded, the caffeinated doctor who talked faster than normal for that time of night asked if anything made my pain worse. When I said lying down, he was pretty positive I had acid reflux.

Seriously? Three hours of tests for a version of heartburn?

QR codes on wristbands now!


The Mayo Clinic (ranked the #1 hospital in the U.S.) says this on its website:

“Heartburn, angina and heart attack may feel very much alike. Even experienced doctors can’t always tell the difference between your medical history and a physical exam. That’s why, if you go to the emergency room because of chest pain, you’ll immediately have tests to rule out a heart attack.”

And here’s their list of heart attack symptoms for women:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or upper belly (abdomen) discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Heartburn (indigestion)

With such a broad list it’s easy to see why women second-guess themselves. Besides the chest pain, I only had pain in one arm and felt a little clammy.

When I compare that list with their acid reflux list below, I see quite a few similarities: 

  • A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), usually after eating, which might be worse at night or while lying down
  • Backwash (regurgitation) of food or sour liquid
  • Upper abdominal or chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Sensation of a lump in your throat

The doctor was a tad surprised by the fact that I don’t drink coffee and hadn’t eaten any foods that usually cause the backup. They did say it’s a common condition though. In addition to stress, here’s a short list of foods that can trigger acid reflux:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine (coffee, soda, tea)
  • Carbonation
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus
  • Fatty foods
  • Garlic & onions
  • Spicy foods

Lessons Learned

Here are a few things I realized while experiencing pain, second-guessing myself, and observing organized chaos in the ER:

Numero uno, the symptoms females experience when having a heart attack can look different from men. Know the signs, act quickly and always keep baby aspirin on hand. If I ever have similar pain that might be more like a heart attack I will most certainly start chewing those tiny pills before even calling for help.

B, my thoughts of not wanting to bother a 911 dispatcher are absurd. Always assuming I should keep the lines clear for “real” emergencies stems from innocent childhood warnings. But chest pain most definitely falls into the emergency category.

So don’t wait. Heart attacks and acid reflux can present the same, but if it truly is a heart attack, time is of the essence. As in, if you want to live, hurry your dang self up. 

I know, I know—I stalled. But when you mix an optimist with high empathy and a helper nature, you end up with a woman who downplays her own pain so as not to inconvenience others. Bothering people bothers me.

It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me. 

And lastly, most doctors are amazing, but none of them are God. At the end of the night my husband and I thanked the Ultimate Physician for sparing me from something life-threatening. If I ever have a real heart attack I pray I will still be able to thank Him for who He is and how He loves.

Have you ever visited the ER? Tell me something in the comments you learned and I promise to respond.