Niki LeFevreAllentown, Pennsylvania
Job: Phys ed teacher
Status: Married, one child and two stepchildren
A 5-foot-5, 115-pound triathlete, Niki LeFevre considered herself so healthy that she used to joke about it. "I'd tell my husband, 'You're going to be stuck with me until I'm 115 years old.'" When she woke up with severe back pain last April, she figured it was a muscle spasm from training too hard for an upcoming race and headed off to work.
While she was playing tennis in her last-period gym class, the pain spread to her chest. "It hurt terribly to swing," she says. "I told the student, 'You've got to play me next week when I'm not feeling so bad—if I didn't know better, I'd say I was having a heart attack.'"
But she still got in her car to drive home. While talking to her husband on the way, she suddenly felt much worse and told him to call 911. "I was nauseated, sweating, and so light-headed that I pulled off the highway," she says. When the EMTs arrived 5 minutes later, they checked her pulse and blood pressure—both of which were low—and gave her oxygen. She blacked out.
At the hospital, the cardiologist took one look at her EKG and rushed her to the catheterization lab, where he inserted a stent. "He said if I hadn't been in such good shape, I would have died on the tennis court, because one of my main arteries was one hundred percent blocked," she says. "I was sobbing, because I thought my life would never be the same again." Her annual checkups had never revealed high cholesterol or blood pressure, and she had no family history of heart disease.
But there was another problem: Nine years earlier, LeFevre had been diagnosed with hypersomnia, a rare sleep disorder. She needs 10 to 12 hours of sleep each night to feel "normal," but most nights, she'd been getting less than 5, which more than doubles the risk of a heart attack, even in otherwise healthy people. Chronic sleep deprivation is more hazardous to women than to men, raising blood pressure and reducing the body's sensitivity to insulin, both of which can damage blood vessels—which is what happened to LeFevre. She now takes a blood thinner, a beta-blocker, and a statin, and she stopped working to focus on her health.
Screenings she should have had: Advanced cholesterol test, carotid intimal medial thickness test (CIMT).
Camille KingPeoria, Arizona
Job: Credit manager
Status: Married, 1 child
When Camille King felt light-headed and short of breath at work one day in July 2004, she chalked it up to stress. Her husband had just been laid off—3 days after they'd bought a new house. "I was worried about how we'd pay the mortgage," she says. Besides, she'd had trouble breathing before. "I passed out and fell down a flight of stairs at my doctor's office," King says. "He said it was an anxiety attack."