Faces of Heart: Amy Cavaliere’s Journey as a SCAD Survivor
Amy Cavaliere—a self-described “wife and mom living the dream in suburbia”—hates the cliche “everything happens for a reason.” Except, when describing the day of her heart attack in 2017, she can’t help but use the phrase.
Five years ago, Cavaliere was getting ready to send her kids to school when she was overcome with a heaviness in her chest. Her arms felt too heavy to brush her daughter’s hair, her breathing was becoming labored and her whole body started to feel cold. Always stubborn, she refused to call an ambulance—especially when her kids were still home. She thought it may just be a panic attack, despite the fact that she had never had one before. It was her husband—who was supposed to be out of town on business, but flew home for the day—who convinced her something was wrong enough to seek medical attention.
“The paramedics could see I was being stubborn,” she says. “They were like, ‘I’m sure it’s nothing, but let’s just go get you checked out.’ They were trying to trick me into getting into the ambulance and going to the hospital.”
On the way to the hospital, she went into cardiac arrest. She was brought into the hospital receiving CPR—which continued for the next 45 minutes. Once they were able to regain a rhythm in her heart, she was brought into a catheterization laboratory, where doctors were able to inspect her heart. They discovered that her coronary artery was 100 percent occluded, and recognized her condition as SCAD—a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, in which a tear forms in a blood vessel in the heart. They decided she needed to be transported to another hospital with more resources.
“They were afraid my brain wouldn’t survive because I had already been without oxygen to my brain for so long,” she says. “So, they packed me in ice bags—literally giant bags of ice—from head to toe to drop my body into hypothermia in an effort to preserve my brain function.”
Her doctors were doing everything right, she says, but her story was only getting more complicated. She stayed in a medically induced coma for nine days, which gave her heart a chance to heal, but also caused her to become ill with a severe case of pneumonia. Her lung collapsed, and her family started to believe that she was going to pass on. But one doctor decided to try one more medication—and she started to get better almost immediately. More complications formed with her breathing, though, and a pulmonologist on-site decided to perform an emergency bronchoscopy—a procedure in which a doctor looks directly into the airways of a patient’s lungs—instead of intubating her.
Cavaliere considers this the third time her life was saved in the span of less than two weeks.
“Thank God the pulmonologist didn’t just intubate me right away, because if he had, he would have pushed all of the dead tissue that had formed down into my lungs, and it would have killed me,” she says.
Cavaliere is on what she calls her fourth chance at life. Now 40 years old, her life doesn’t look very different from how it did before her heart attack. She is the same devoted mom and wife and she is still an active person with two part-time jobs. But she does have a new mission: teaching others, especially women, about heart disease prevention and about SCAD.
SCAD is not a very common condition, and heart attacks caused by SCAD are even rarer. It’s not easy to find out what causes SCAD on a case-by-case basis, as Cavaliere experienced herself. The same doctors who saved her life also told her that she “might just have to be okay with never knowing why this happened.” Cavaliere says she could only accept that after she exhausted all possible avenues first.
“I have three kids and if this is genetic, I owe it to them to find out what happened to me and what caused it so that they are better prepared,” she says.
Eventually, she found her way to the Mayo Clinic—one of the world-leaders when it comes to information about SCAD. She found out that one of the leading causes for SCAD is something called fibromuscular dysplasia, or FMD—essentially a weakening of artery walls. Combined with stress, FMD can cause SCAD.
Initially, she rejected the idea that she was stressed—she was happy, and lived a comfortable life with her family. But eventually she learned that the body does not always discriminate between negative stress—like anxiety or exhaustion—and positive stress—like excitement. Despite her stubborn nature, she has learned to reduce both types of stress in her life and unplug when necessary—and she advocates for everyone in her life to get annual physicals, go to the doctor when necessary and know their family history to prevent severe conditions.
“The brain and the human body is a lot more resilient than we give it credit for,” she says. “But heart disease doesn’t discriminate and the face of heart disease has changed.”
Faces of Heart is a campaign created by Stephanie Austin through the American Heart Association. Its mission is to spread awareness about how to prevent and recognize signs of heart disease through educational programming and the creation of a network of survivors.This is a paid partnership between Go Red For Women and Philadelphia Magazine's City/Studio