A tale of heart attack survival

Four months ago, Shirley Labchuk had open heart surgery for a disease she did not even know she had – heart disease. 

She leads what she describes as a “relatively healthy” lifestyle, following a low-fat diet, is physically active, is not overweight, does not smoke and is not diabetic. But, despite apparently appearing to be far from being a candidate for heart attack, she had one but didn’t realise it.  

Ms Labchuk shared her story with hundreds of women recently at the annual Red Dress Live and Learn Luncheon. 

“After a busy week of work and late nights entertaining friends from overseas, I experienced several episodes of lightheadedness and for a few seconds, I had the sensation that I may faint. I had previously been diagnosed with high blood pressure and had some issues with medications and thought that this may be a problem,” Ms Labchuk said. 

After seeing her doctor and getting an EKG and other tests, Ms Labchuk – who is in her 50s – was admitted to Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital where a cardiologist from the Heart Health Centre confirmed that she had suffered a heart attack. 

“My entire world changed in that instant. I was in total shock. I had none of the symptoms of a heart attack – no chest pain, no left arm pain, no shortness of breath, or numbness, or sweating or indigestion. 

“I learned that women often do not have symptoms. Today, in retrospect, I will say that I had been feeling tired for quite a while, but attributed that to my hectic lifestyle and like most women, it’s easy to put the needs of everyone else before your own,” she said. 

Two days later, she was transferred to St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, where it was confirmed she needed open heart surgery to bypass blocked arteries in her heart. After some complications and another cardiac episode, she underwent a quadruple bypass and received a pacemaker five days after a heart rhythm problem likely caused by her heart attack. 

“What a humbling and frightening experience for me and my wonderful, supportive family. We are thankful, and I am now taking one step at a time – finding a new normal way as my recovery process continues.” 

Her family history played a role in her heart disease – her father died at 52 of a heart attack. She now pays more attention to her diet, avoiding packaged foods with hidden sugars and sodium and opts for fresh fruit and vegetables instead. She does more exercise, stepping on the treadmill each day, and now has a better understanding of her limits. 

“I listen to my body and acknowledge that my health comes first,” she said. 

Ms Labchuk is far from alone. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over the age of 35 and is responsible for one death per minute among women in the United States. It claims more lives than breast cancer, lung cancer and stroke combined. 

What she experienced is often known as a “silent” heart attack, which does not have the symptoms one usually associates with heart attacks. 

Attendees at the packed luncheon, the vast majority of whom were decked out in red dresses and outfits, also heard from cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston, creator of the well-known South Beach Diet and medical director of wellness and prevention at Baptist Health South Florida.  

Dr. Agatston gave a compelling presentation titled “Heart attacks are absolutely preventable”, arguing that heart attacks can be avoided and prevented by the early detection of risk factors and a change in lifestyle once a person finds out they may be likely to face a heart attack in the future. 

“No one needs to have a heart attack,” he said.  

The Red Dress luncheon at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman was part of several events held during the Cayman Heart Fund’s Heart Smart Week last month, including an international cardiac medical symposium at St. Matthew’s University attended by more than 200 healthcare providers and medical students, an expo featuring local and international vendors from all walks of the medical, health and related fields, and a very well attended heart health fair at the Arts and Recreation Centre at Camana Bay. The luncheon attracted 300 attendees and raised more than $20,000.  

During the fair, people had their BMI, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol and waist circumference checked for free. Children also got in on the act this year, with health screening and exercise stations set up specially for children and teens, more than 180 of whom underwent health checks. In all, more than 800 people attended the fair, according to the Cayman Heart Fund’s Dr. Sook Yin. 

This year, children were also invited to take part in a Get Active Challenge and 35 kids signed up as participants. 

“We have record numbers this year in all our events and I think we are sensitising our Cayman community to take their health seriously and empowering them to take charge of their risk factors,” Dr. Yin said. “Many who attended our health screenings are repeat attendees and some started off with us five years ago and have brought their forms back. There have been a steady improvement in their health status.  

“The groundwork that Cayman Heart Fund has laid down is paying off and we will continue this momentum and hopefully our sponsors, partners and volunteers will continue to support us in our fight against cardiovascular disease.” 


Ms Labchuk


  1. Good article. I am wishing this lady full recovery. Only please, do a thorough research before going on a low fat-sodium diet. Your body needs fats and sodium. The right kind.

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