Ottawa·Point of View

I'd never heard of a SCAD until it happened to me

The year Dawn turned fifty, she experienced something she'd never heard of before: a SCAD, a rare and life-threatening heart condition that affects mainly women.

Dawn Bailey didn't know about the rare, life-threatening heart condition until her own diagnosis

Dawn Bailey had never heard of a SCAD until she experienced the rare heart condition herself. (Hilary Little)

Do you know the leading cause of death for women?  

A recent survey revealed close to half of women believe it's breast cancer. It's not. It's heart disease.

The numbers for women are scary. According to Statistics Canada, close to 25,000 women die each year from heart disease. And women who have one heart attack are more likely to die — or suffer a second heart attack — compared to men.

I cycled between being grateful to be alive and being paralyzed by fear.- Dawn Bailey

Partly, our risk is higher because heart disease presents differently for women.

Women tend to get back, shoulder, neck or jaw pain, indigestion-like feelings, shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping.

Women are more likely to ignore those symptoms, and doctors missed early signs of heart attack in women 78 per cent of the time.

Why do I know all of this? Because it happened to me, though not in the way most people think when they hear the words "heart disease."

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I turned 50 in 2016 — cause for celebration! I pledged to do 50 new things in my 50th year, labelling it "50@50."

Friends joined in with ideas, and all year the activities were awesome, wide-ranging and sometimes weird!  We went caving, paddle-boarding, axe throwing and to a séance.

Then came some unexpected new things that were not so awesome — things like bed pans, angiograms, and a nice stay in a five-star ... ICU.

I'm healthy, young and I eat well. I exercise, don't drink or smoke, and have no family history of disease. I lead a busy life with a family, a career in high-tech, volunteering and a jewelry business.

Dawn Bailey was a busy woman, juggling family, a career in high-tech and a jewelry business. ( Nina Ianni Alice)

So when I was having my usual Sunday girls night sipping on a (virgin) pina colada, and watching The Walking Dead, I attributed my chest discomfort to indigestion, my back pain to bad posture, my foggy brain to tiredness and my cold sweats to a bug, maybe?  

Leaving early, I drove home, lay down and the back pain increased. I knew something was wrong. Disoriented, I contacted Telehealth, who immediately called 911.

I protested throughout that ambulance ride, saying "I'm sure it's nothing."

In emergency they ran a battery of tests, while I still kept thinking it's nothing, I'm wasting their time … until it turned out to be a big something.

Arrhythmia, tachycardia, vomiting, devastating headaches, chest pains — I went through it all.

By Tuesday, my artery was completely blocked. Cue a "regular" heart attack. Another new experience I didn't want.

When I was stable enough for transport to the Ottawa Heart Institute, an angiogram showed a SCAD.

A what? SCAD: spontaneous cardiac artery dissection.  

I'd never heard of it because it's rare. In fact, most doctors have never treated a SCAD patient. Luckily, the Ottawa Heart Institute is one of the few places researching it.

A SCAD is when a tear occurs inside the artery layers, causing blood pools.

It's a condition that can hit you multiple times with no warning and known cause. SCAD accounts for roughly four per cent of all heart attacks treated in hospital, and it overwhelmingly affects women.    

Treatment can include stents or bypasses. In my case they opted for medical management, hoping the tear wouldn't get worse.

This news was terrifying, painful and mystifying. I cycled between being grateful to be alive and being paralyzed by fear.

Dawn Bailey's 12-year-old son JW still jumps to attention if he hears her gasp. (Dawn Bailey)

I was released from the hospital with a big bag of new medications. I was glad to be home, but my recovery wasn't easy. 

I slept all the time. I attended rehab and counselling to cope with the uncertainty and loss of confidence in my body. I joined SCAD support groups and became my own health advocate.

Family and friends were amazingly supportive with tea, company, food and drives to appointments.   

After the SCAD

Two years post-SCAD, I now work full time. I tire easily and struggle with depression and anxiety.

The emotional toll has been hard, too. My son, who's 12, still jumps to attention if I gasp. My mother needs constant contact. I saw my dad cry for the first time.

And, it still nags me. Why?

The reason I'm sharing my story is to tell other women to listen to their bodies in case this happens to you, your friend or family member.

  • Don't dismiss your symptoms.
  • Don't let others dismiss their symptoms, even if they say it's nothing.
  • Advocate for yourself. Don't allow yourself to be brushed off when something is wrong.

I nearly dismissed what was happening to me, and if I had? Well, I wouldn't be here sharing my story with you.