Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack a lesson for women

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

You’ve probably heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” After reading about Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack, I’d like to coin a new one: “It often takes a celebrity to sound the alarm about important health issues.”

The 50-year-old actress, comedienne, and talk show host suffered a surprise (aren’t they all) heart attack last week. Word got out when she wrote about it on her blog.

According to O’Donnell, she helped extricate “an enormous woman” who was stuck in her car. Later that day

my body hurt
i had an ache in my chest
both my arms were sore
everything felt bruised
muscular – i thought

Still later, O’Donnell became nauseous, her skin got clammy, and she felt very hot. She took an aspirin, and the next day went to see a cardiologist. Her electrocardiogram was worrisome enough that she was sent to the hospital. Tests showed that her left anterior descending artery was 99% blocked. She underwent artery-opening angioplasty and had a wire-mesh stent placed to keep the artery open.

“Surprise” symptoms

I am delighted that O’Donnell decided to talk about her symptoms and her trouble realizing she was having a heart attack. Many people think that heart attacks have classic, recognizable symptoms. That’s not necessarily the case. Some generate subtle signs, others sneaky ones.

One problem was probably her age. At 50, O’Donnell may have thought, “I’m too young for this to be a heart attack.” And although we are finally leaving behind the notion that heart attack is a “man’s disease,” many women still don’t think it can happen to them.

The chest discomfort and arm pain that O’Donnell described are fairly common heart attack symptoms. Her other symptoms are also common in women, but less well known.

During a heart attack, women can have:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Marked weakness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Cold sweats
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Chest pain, a common early warning sign of heart attack in men, is often toward the bottom of the list of symptoms women experience. Those who do feel something in the chest often don’t use the term pain. Instead they mention aching, tightness, or pressure.

“Save urself”

An American Heart Association survey done two years ago revealed some startling statistics about women and heart attacks:

  • Only 55% of women surveyed said they would call 911 if they thought they were having a heart attack
  • 50% of women didn’t know heart disease was the leading cause of death among women.
  • 51% said family or caregiving responsibilities made it difficult or impossible to take steps against heart disease, such as exercise and healthful eating
  • 32% said they didn’t need to take preventive action since they weren’t at risk for heart disease
  • 58% said they were trying to prevent heart disease by taking vitamin A, C, or E (none of which has been shown to work against heart disease).

I hope that the attention O’Donnell might bring to the topic of heart attack in women will help others like her get help sooner. As doctors often say, “Time is muscle.” The longer the heart goes without oxygen—the ultimate effect of a heart attack—the more damage occurs to the heart muscle.

The bottom line? I’ll give O’Donnell the last words here:

know the symptoms ladies
listen to the voice inside
the one we all so easily ignore
CALL 911
save urself


  1. Matthew

    Are the consequences of obesity still surprising? I don’t think so. She knew what was coming

  2. Michael Johnson

    Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack a lesson for women… can we say it’s a lesson for obesity instead?

  3. William McPherson

    I am a male who had a heart attack at 72 without any of the symptoms I had associated with a cardiac event. I had been puttering in the garden, sat down at a table to make some notes when I began to feel very, very weak. I could not raise my head from my hands. I had a mild ache in my right jaw that extended into my ear, my throat felt constricted and my voice did not feel normal. I went upstairs to bed when my brother came home about an hour later. I could not get comfortable. I probably had shortness of breath but I was not gasping. I was not, however, acting rationally. Thirty-six hours later my brother thought I should go to the emergency room. That’s when I learned I had had a heart attack–a serious one, too, but without pain and unfortunately without aspirin.

  4. Enayet Karim

    I think it’s really a lesson for all of us that Rosie O’Donnell suffered, a heart attack. We should keep our health in a balanced way so that we never suffer like that heart attack.

  5. helen

    I had the same heart attack two years ago. I also took 2 aspirin and sat down for about 15 minutes when the pain didn’t let up I called 911 and at the hospital ER they monitored me for the next 7 hours and they brought me my clothes so I thought they were sending me home but since I live 100 miles from the cardiac surgeon I would be transported by helicopter CalStar our local air ambulance. I arrived at the hospital and was taken directly to the surgical area given a medication that allowed me to be awake and not be aware of time (medically induced dementia)the surgeon found 2 blockages and placed stents and the next day I was on my way home and had asked my daughter to get rid of all cigarettes in the house. I was actually down to 5 per day and stopped inhaling so was ready to quit this put me over the edge and i haven’t had one since and i can’t be in the same area as smoke anymore. the aspirin saved me for the ER the ER saved me for the heart surgeon. THANK YOU ALL

  6. Crossfit girl

    Why is anyone including Rosie surprised by her heart attack? She is overweight for at least 20 yrs and by all accounts, pretty sedentary.

    I’m 53, and have sustained normal weight and actually followed my doctor’s preventive care advice over the last 10-15 years. I started Crossfit about 18 months ago, and improved my fitness level a lot.

    The bar is pretty low when all we can do is praise her for having the sense to call 911.

    • gerry

      I couldn’t agree more! A healthy lifestyle —EXERCISE every day,aVEGETARIAN food plan,DRINK LOTS OF WATER,a POSITIVE ATTITUDE,and a Trust in GOD–I am 82 ,PRACTICE what I preach, AND TAKE NO MEDICINES !!!!!!!!

  7. RT the juicing health nut

    What happened to Rosie is unfortunate, but like me I guess she should have seen it coming. I find that as i get older I am undergoing a change in thinking. I have a strong risk for heart disease and a bad family history of it as well. I let my weight get out of hand and my blood pressure has not been in check for a while. A friend of mine gave me the p90x workout regime and showed me a little about juicing. Since then I have improved my heart health by working out 6 days a week and juicing.

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