Colorado cardiac nurse, after three heart attacks, offers survival tips: ‘Listen to your gut’

As a registered nurse in Colorado, Jennifer Harlan cares for cardiac patients for a living — but in the past five years, she herself has survived three heart attacks

Last week, Harlan, 53, had the opportunity to meet with the EMS crew who saved her life at HCA Healthcare’s Sky Ridge Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

“I cannot thank them enough — they are the reason I am here today,” she said.

Harlan revealed the details of her heart health journey — along with her prevention tips — to Fox News Digital.

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Her first heart attack was in February 2018, when she was just 47 years old, she said.

“I woke up in the middle of the night with distinct symptoms of a heart attack — shooting pain down my left arm, sweating, pale, nauseous,” she said.

Harlan went to the emergency department and spent the following night in the hospital, but her tests came back normal — so she was discharged.

“The symptoms returned two days later, but I ignored them, convinced there was no way I was having a heart attack,” Harlan said. “By the time I was seen by a cardiologist – three days after the symptoms returned – I had lost blood flow to a large portion of my heart.”

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Harlan’s left anterior descending artery (LAD) — which is the largest coronary artery that carries blood to the heart — had dissected, clotted and formed scar tissue. 

“I had lost 30% of my heart function,” she said.

The official diagnosis was SCAD, or spontaneous coronary artery dissection, which is a rare heart condition that happens suddenly with no apparent warning or prior risk factors. 

The next occurrence was nearly three years later, in October 2021. Harlan was at work when she felt the same symptoms as with her first heart attack. 

“I got immediately to the emergency department, and was diagnosed with a second occurrence of SCAD, this time affecting two different arteries,” she told Fox News Digital. “But because I got help quickly, the damage was minimal.”

Nearly two years later, in August 2023, Harlan had her most recent episode.

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“I again woke up in the middle of the night with the same symptoms and went to the emergency department,” she said. “As my symptoms had resolved and my tests were all normal, I was eventually discharged.”

Later that night, while watching TV on the couch, Harlan’s husband looked over and saw that she was unconscious and starting to turn blue. 

“He pulled me onto the floor, called 911 and immediately started CPR,” Harlan said. “I was in full cardiac arrest.”

When first responders arrived at Harlan’s house, “I was shocked twice before I got a heartbeat back,” she said. 

“They transported me to the hospital, where I lost my pulse again and was shocked again. I ended up intubated and with a chest tube.”

Harlan spent five days in the ICU. 

After the doctors discovered that she had yet another tear in a small artery that had caused a clot, Harlan received an implanted defibrillator/pacemaker.

She also had several broken ribs and a broken sternum as a result of the CPR.

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“That was the most difficult part of my recovery, and it took several weeks for everything to heal,” she said. “Additionally, when you get a pacemaker placed, you have very limited mobility in your left arm for several weeks while the pacemaker heals in place.”

Harlan was treated at the same hospital where she works — HCA Healthcare’s Sky Ridge Medical Center, a level 2 trauma center.

“We were so honored to care for our colleague as a member of our own family,” said David Welcom, director of cardiovascular services at the hospital.

“Our Sky Ridge cardiovascular team is available 24/7 to ensure that we provide that same level of care for our community when minutes make a difference.”

Harlan’s condition, SCAD, has no known cause or risk factors.

Most patients who have the condition are women in their 40s and 50s who are otherwise healthy, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

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While there is no specific known cause, “scientists think it’s likely that multiple factors may cause SCAD, such as abnormalities in the arteries, genetics, hormonal influences or inflammatory issues,” the AHA’s website states. 

External stressors could also elevate risk.

“I have always led a healthy lifestyle,” Harlan told Fox News Digital. “I eat well and love to exercise. Yoga and spinning are my favorites.”

She went on, “That’s the challenging part — I have no risk factors for heart disease. I’ve got low blood pressure and low cholesterol. Nobody saw this coming.”

Harlan doesn’t have any limitations as to what she can and can’t do. Her cardiologist encourages her to be as active as she wants, she said.

She’s now made a full recovery and is back to doing yoga and walking for exercise.

Looking ahead, Harlan said she isn’t too worried about future heart attacks. 

“I never thought I would have a third occurrence of SCAD — that’s practically unheard of — so, I’d like to think I’m good,” she said. 

Having the internal defibrillator also adds a level of security.

“If I were to go into cardiac arrest again, the defibrillator would shock me back into a normal rhythm within two minutes,” she noted. “That for sure helps me and my husband sleep better at night.”

Harlan also received an echocardiogram during her last hospital visit, which showed that her heart had fully regained the 30% that was lost in the first heart attack. 

Her next echocardiogram is scheduled for March.

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Being a patient gave Harlan a different perspective on how to care for others, she said. 

“It’s not enough to just be a strong, intelligent clinical nurse,” she said. “You also have to understand all the anxiety that comes with being a patient in the hospital — the unknown and unfamiliar, the worry about what the diagnosis is, the sudden lack of control you have over your most basic functions.”

The nurse believes that the hospital experience was most likely easier for her because she’s familiar with the clinical setting. 

“I know the equipment and the tests and the lingo,” Harlan said. “For someone who’s never been in the hospital before, it can be very uncomfortable.”

“This entire experience has taught me that you never know what tomorrow could bring,” Harlan said. 

“I’m not going to live my life in fear, because there’s nothing I can do to prevent another occurrence,” she added. “I just try to live each day with gratitude that three times now, I’ve been given another chance, and I’m trying to be worthy of that gift.”

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While SCAD may have no known risk factors or prevention methods, Harlan said it’s essential for people to pay close attention to the systems.

“Listen to your gut,” she advised. “Even if you think you couldn’t possibly be having a heart attack, you can. Get to the hospital and get yourself checked out.”

In health care, Harlan said, a common mantra is “time is tissue.”

So “the longer you wait to seek help for things like heart attack and stroke, the more likely you are to have permanent damage and loss of function,” the nurse said. 

“It’s better to go to the emergency department and get diagnosed with indigestion than to talk yourself out of what could be a very serious condition.”

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Warning signs of SCAD include chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, and profuse sweating and dizziness, the AHA noted.

Harlan also stressed the importance of getting CPR training.

Immediate CPR can double or triple the chances of someone surviving a heart attack, according to the AHA.

Michael Miller, with South Metro Fire Rescue, was one of the EMS crew members who treated Harlan and was reunited with her last week.

“I would advise everyone to go and get CPR training before anything like this happens,” added Miller, according to a local report from CBS Colorado.

“I’m alive today because my husband was trained in CPR and started chest compressions on me almost immediately,” Harlan said. “You never know when this could happen to a total stranger, or to someone you love.”

She added, “Get trained and save a life.”

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