A northeast Iowa woman is part of a study that’s helping unravel a rare heart condition that strikes young, otherwise healthy people. Forty-two-year-old Tracy Hjelle is in great shape as she’s the pitching coach for the Luther College softball team.
Last April though, she collapsed from an apparent heart attack. Hjelle was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes, says it’s a case of SCAD.
“SCAD is an acronym for spontaneous coronary artery dissection,” Dr. Hayes says. “It is an uncommon and probably under-diagnosed cause of heart attack and death. It’s when instead of plaque building up in the artery, the layers of the artery actually split and either a clot or a flap of the artery that’s split away, blocks the artery causing a heart attack.”
Hayes’ colleague, Dr. Rajiv Gulati is also doing research to uncover clues about SCAD, including potential risk factors, short and long-term recovery and the rate of reoccurrence.
“There are number of patients that a year ago, we would have said this is a typical cholesterol heart attack based on the angiogram, but now with these newer tools, we’ve found no plague, no cholesterol build up, but a dissection within the vessel wall, so I think this is under-recognized and that’s an important aspect going forward here.”
As for Hjelle, she’s preparing for the fall semester in Decorah. She’s extremely lucky because in many SCAD cases, patients either die before help arrives of suffer irreversible damage. “Everybody was just amazed at how normal I was,” Hjelle says.
“Within a week, I was out and about somewhat normally. It was due to the fact that I didn’t need any surgery or anything invasive done. I went through a lot of testing, CT scans and MRIs afterwards, too, just to monitor. They’ve just been watching the progress.”
Tracy’s husband, John, credits her swift recovery to the fact his wife was surrounded by people who had been trained in CPR and that Luther College has automated external defibrillators on campus.
“The AE device was only 20 paces away and within seven minutes, they had her back to normal heart rhythm,” he says. “Without those pieces in place, she wouldn’t be as normal as she is today and my life would have been turned upside down.”
The Hjelles are heading up efforts to get more A-E-Ds placed in schools and other public places throughout northeast Iowa.