June 29, 2020 started out like any typical summer day for Debra Anne Rust. The 67-year-old Birmingham native, who serves as a Gifted Education Specialist for the Midfield School System, drove to Tuscaloosa for a monthly lunch with her college roommate. After the visit, she told her friend they needed to get together more frequently because a number of their friends had passed away in recent months. Rust never imagined how close she would come to losing her own life later that day.

“I hugged my friend and drove home,” Rust shares. “It was a hot day, so I decided I needed to go outside to my back yard and water my plants. All of a sudden, I felt like an alien reached into my heart and pulled it out and was squeezing it. It was the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life. Then I started sweating profusely. I started throwing up and I couldn’t breathe, that was the scariest part.”

Rust, who had no family history of heart disease and had never experienced any heart problems herself, immediately recognized that her symptoms indicated she was likely having a heart attack. She ran inside, grabbed her cell phone and dialed 9-1-1. The paramedics from the nearby Bluff Park fire station arrived quickly. They confirmed she was having a heart attack and prepared to transfer her to the hospital.

“That was kind of a scary time. And that’s when…I always cry on this part…my mom and my aunt, who are deceased, came to me like little angels and they said, ‘Don’t you worry, you are going to be fine. You’re going to be alright. You’re going to survive this because you have a lot of work to do.”

The ambulance driver asked Rust which hospital she preferred and she replied without hesitation, “Don’t you dare take me anywhere but St. Vincent’s. That’s where my doctors are and that’s where I want to go.”

The paramedics rushed Rust to Ascension St. Vincent’s, reporting her status to the hospital while in transit. That allowed a team including Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Monica Greis Hunter to prepare for Rust’s arrival. “We were already on our way into the hospital, ready to meet and take care of Debra before she even arrived,” recalls Dr. Hunter.

Rust had an Anterior Wall Myocardial Infarction—her heart’s front artery was 100% blocked. Dr. Hunter and her team were able to open the artery completely using balloons and stints. “Debra was very fortunate,” she says. “She came in with classic symptoms: squeezing in her chest, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diaphoresis. Because we were notified in the field, we had no delay in getting her artery open.”

“When you don’t know if you’re going to live or die, when you can’t breathe, it’s very scary,” Rust explains. “Dr. Hunter just calmed me down immediately. Her presence was very calming and reassuring. I thought, ‘I have confidence in this lady, she’s going to save my life.’ There was never any doubt in my mind.”

Dr. Monica Hunter

Dr. Hunter, who is the only female cardiologist at Ascension St. Vincent’s, says women tend to have a worse prognosis following their first heart attack compared to men because they often minimize or ignore symptoms and delay getting to the hospital because they’re so busy taking care of everyone else. She credits the American Heart Association’s work in recent decades to educate women on the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. In addition to the typical symptoms Debra exhibited, women at risk for a heart attack may experience acid reflux, jaw pain, passing out episodes, heart fluttering and even severe headaches.

One of the biggest things Dr. Hunter wants every patient needs to know is that they need to have routine healthcare and routine follow-up to monitor risk factors like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. She says medical issues such as increasing instances of diabetes, obesity and sedentary lifestyle are resulting in younger patients presenting with heart attacks and congestive heart failure. “Heart disease is certainly not an old person’s disease. And if we want to live to be an old person, we need to realize that we’re all at risk for heart disease.”

“Debra should very much be commended because she recognized the symptoms, she went in and got her own 9-1-1 phone call and she was very willing to be an active participant, even since the heart attack, in her own healthcare. She’s been a model patient in regards to follow-up, cardiac rehab, increasing physical activity, taking her medications.” Dr. Hunter reports that Rust’s heart has regained all function and her prognosis is excellent.

“I got back to normal as soon as Dr. Hunter dismissed me,” says Rust. “I just wanted my life to get back to doing everything I did before I had the heart attack. I try to monitor stress and eat right and do all the things that will prevent another heart attack.” She walks her dog Winston daily, attends Pilates and boxing classes, and loves to hike at Oak Mountain. She looks forward to rescheduling a trip to Africa that got cancelled last year.

Rust says she is amazed every day that she’s still alive and very grateful for the time she has. She is passionate about educating women about taking care of themselves. “I never thought I could have a heart attack and I did. I’m working on building up my stamina and preaching to other people about healthcare.”