‘I had a heart attack while driving my kids to school’: How a community came together to help save one mother's life

Korin Miller
"It took a lot of humans who listened, believed my story, were trained and could recognize that my situation was serious,” Kristie Holmes tells Yahoo Lifestyle. (Photo courtesy of Kristie Holmes)

Four years ago, a typical school run turned out to be anything but for Los Angeles-based psychologist Kristie Holmes, who ended up having a heart attack during her drive.

Holmes, 44, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she got a pain in her neck while she was securing her daughter into her car seat. “It felt like I slept on my neck wrong, but it was weirder than that,” she says. Holmes says she had a feeling that something was seriously wrong with her health, but couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I sat in the driver’s seat and I had a sense that I needed to drive rather than sit in my driveway,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can sit here and I’ll die, or I’ll drive.’ I had no idea what was going on. I just had a sense that I was going to die if I didn’t get help.”

During her short drive down the hill to her kid’s school nearby, Holmes decided to call 911 and she warned her three kids in the car (including her 2-month-old baby) that she was making the call. Holmes, who says she’s never called 911 before, still wasn’t sure what compelled her to call, but she says “I just knew I had to call. I was sure of it. Something was definitely wrong.”

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Once she was connected, Holmes says she quickly became irritated when she realized the dispatcher was implying that she was having a panic attack. “I told her, ‘This is not a panic attack. This is not a stressful day. I don’t know why I’m feeling this way, but I need help,’” Holmes says. “She believed me and said that the ambulance was coming.” So, Holmes pulled over into the school’s car pool drop-off lane and waited for help to arrive.

“I rolled down the windows so that the other parents heard what was happening,” she says. One father got into the car and helped her with her breathing. “Then, my hands started going in different directions,” she says. “I couldn’t control my arms.”

The ambulance finally arrived and parents took Holmes’s children into school. Her daughter’s former preschool was across the street and the headmistress came over and took her baby. “Everyone helped,” she says. “It was very small town for LA.”

The ambulance paramedic immediately started screening Holmes for anxiety and she stressed to him that she was not having a panic attack. He finally did an electrocardiogram, a test that measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat and then “freaked out and started yelling into a speaker,” Holmes recalls.

Holmes was taken to Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she learned she had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a tear forms in an artery in the heart. SCAD can reduce or block blood flow through the artery, leading to a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). SCAD patients are often women who are otherwise healthy, with few or no risk factors for heart disease, the AHA says.

Holmes later learned that her heart was functioning at 10 percent, and she was sent to surgery. There, doctors put five stents into her heart and connected her to an Impella heart pump to help her heart function.

Holmes says she was “a little confused” afterward. “I didn’t understand why there were so many people in the waiting room,” she says. Holmes ended up spending 55 days in the hospital, with the majority of them in the intensive care unit.

Now, she says, she’s “tired… but I think that’s normal. I have three kids and a job.” Holmes says she’s “on a lot of medications” and sees a cardiologist. She also has some physical limitations. “Holding things over my head or standing in line for a long time can make me pass out,” she says.

Holmes says a nurse later told her that her sense of doom tends to happen in some heart attack patients. “I was fortunate that people were willing to listen to me,” she says. “There were a lot of hurdles for me not to be dead. It took a lot of humans who listened, believed my story, were trained and could recognize that my situation was serious.”