Rare heart attack striking young, healthy women

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CLEVELAND– It’s being called a new mystery illness, causing young, healthy women to have a heart attack without any warning.

The heart condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection or SCAD affects predominantly women in 90% of cases, most of the victims between 30 and 50 years old.

"I'm 39 and I have a 5-month-old baby. I've weighed the least I've ever weighed in my life; I'm in really good shape."

It was more than a year ago, Tara Schoeneman-Brown was having lunch with a friend when she suddenly began feeling sick.

"I just started to have chest pain like I've never felt before. I started to have pain down my left arm; I had jaw pain; I had kind of a dizzy kind of a feeling."

After being rushed to the ER, the young mother of two learned through a blood test that she had a heart attack.

Brown adds, "Soon after they told me that, all of a sudden I started to have that pain again. I had just gotten up and they said get back on the monitor and the next thing I knew, I was having another heart attack in the ER."

Initially, doctors in Pennsylvania where she lives thought the attacks were stressed induced. But doctors at the Cleveland Clinic determined right away the attacks were caused by SCAD.

Unlike a more typical heart attack caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, a SCAD heart attack starts with a tear in an artery, mostly targeting young women, the majority after giving birth.

Dr. Heather Gornik, a staff physician in vascular medicine, treated Tara, and says SCAD is considered to be rare in the general population, although it has been misdiagnosed for years, possibly decades.

"Honestly, I think the SCAD has always happened; it just hasn't been recognized by the medical community. People thought it was a young patient with unusual-looking coronary arteries. And why would this young person have a heart attack?" said Dr. Gornik.

So why are mostly young women targeted? Dr. Gornik believes there may be hormonal factors, including pregnancy. She says pre-menopausal women can be affected as well.

The condition can also be fatal.

"I hold my baby -- she's one and a half now and my son's 5 and a half -- and I just every day think I'm just so fortunate to still be here with them," said Brown.

The Cleveland Clinic is hosting a conference this week for patients with two types of under-diagnosed heart conditions that primarily affect women.

In Tara’s case, it was determined she had tears in five arteries that lead to her brain.

She will be an honorary guest, telling people her story, in hopes of saving lives.

**Read more on SCAD**