Heart & Vascular

Patient Story: Twila Hays

Surviving a heart attack at age 47—one mom's story

Twila Hays is like many women her age. She works full time as a nurse. She has three kids. She tries to live a healthy lifestyle. And often times she puts the needs of others before hers.

"When I was training, I worked with a nurse who was rather short and rather round," Hays said. "We were talking with a patient in the cardiac unit about stopping smoking and improving his diet. And I remember the man looked straight at that nurse and said, 'When you start doing what you're saying I'll be open to listening.' That was a major wake up call for me."

But despite being very active, even running several 5K, 10K, and half marathon races, Twila's story took a sharp turn from most of her peers this past year: At age 47, she suffered a heart attack.

"It was probably the one thing I could say would never happen to me," she said. "But I was wrong."

On Sept. 11, Twila had just worked an overnight shift as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital (CRMH).

"I didn't feel great, but mainly just tired,'' she said. "So, I blew it off and went to bed."

When Twila woke up later that afternoon, to catch her son's soccer game, she felt a sharp, burning feeling in her chest.

"My husband was out of town, my parents live out of town, and my kids were at school, so I called my best friend in Texas, who is also a nurse," she said. "She immediately asked, 'Why are you calling me? You need to go get it checked out.' "I thought maybe it was just heartburn or indigestion, but I decided to call a friend here for a ride to VelocityCare (urgent care by Carilion Clinic)."

It has been said that doctors and nurses make the worst patients, and though Twila was not keen on going to the doctor or hospital, she knew when the pain wasn't subsiding she needed to see a doctor.

After undergoing an electrocardiogram at VelocityCare, the team there sent Twila straight to the emergency room at CRMH. After several rounds of testing, she was taken to the cardiac catheterization lab to find out how badly her heart had been damaged.

And there was good news. Carilion Cardiologist Stephen Phillips, M.D., told Twila she had "pristinely clean arteries."

"I'll never forget those words," she said. "I was thrilled because that meant my healthy lifestyle had paid off somewhat. But I was still wondering, 'Why me?'''

Fortunately, Twila didn't need surgery. Essentially one of her arteries had a spasm. And with medication, rest, and rehabilitation, Dr. Phillips told Twila she would make a full recovery.

Twila isn't the typical cardiac patient. She doesn't have a family history of heart disease, she has no other medical conditions, she doesn't smoke, and she leads a healthy and active lifestyle.

After speaking more with Dr. Phillips, Twila began to realize that the stress in her life, both personally and professionally, may have been a contributing factor.

"I've always been one to keep things in," she said. 'Over time everyday stresses started to build up."

Under the care of Dr. Phillips, Twila went to Carilion's cardiac rehabilitation program for outpatient treatment.

"I was surprised to hear that I would be out of work for at least a month,' she said. 'But I had to keep reminding myself that I had a wound that needed to heal, even though I couldn't see it. In fact, the first week I was home, I went to one of my daughter's cheerleading competitions. I thought it would be no big deal since I would just be sitting and watching, but the next day I was wiped out. That was when it became real and I knew I had to let my body recover and heal."

In cardiac rehabilitation, Twila started to heal not only physically but also emotionally.

"It's taken me awhile to grasp that I had a heart attack and accept it,' she said. 'Even with the experience I have professionally, I didn't want to admit it. Having a heart attack is a traumatic event; it comes with a lot of emotional baggage.”

Dr. Phillips and the cardiac rehabilitation team told Twila they expected nothing less than a complete recovery for her.

“Dr. Phillips kept reminding me how well I was doing and that I was only going to continue to improve,” she said. “His whole team is really a wonderful group of people. They are amazing.”

Now for Twila, it’s all about keeping a balance.

“We all spread ourselves too thin,” she said. “I thought I was doing an okay job but I was functioning, not really taking care of myself. It’s important to take a moment, pause, and look at the state of your health.”

As with any major life change, having a heart attack has given Twila a fresh perspective.

“If I don’t take care of myself, how am I going to take care of my kids? I have to be an example for them,” she said. “As women and as moms we can’t run ourselves into the ground. We need to take it one day at a time. That’s all any of us can do.”