Cynthia Ravitsky was in her car listening to an NPR interview about women and heart attacks when she suffered a heart attack of her own

By Cathy Free
October 10, 2016 03:44 PM
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Cynthia Ravitsky/Photo by: Gary Zeune

Stuck in traffic on Route 160 through Newark, Ohio, on her way to work last month, Cynthia Ravitsky was listening to a discussion about women and heart attacks on NPR’s Here and Now show, when she suddenly felt a strange pinching sensation in her chest, followed by tingling and numbness in her right arm.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I must be having a muscle spasm — there’s no way it could be my heart,” Ravitsky, 67, an adjunct math professor at The Ohio State University at Newark, tells PEOPLE. “So I kept creeping along in traffic and waited for it to go away.”

When that didn’t happen and Ravitsky heard radio guest Gayle Forman say, “Don’t ignore the symptoms,” she decided to take the exit to Licking Memorial Hospital and go to the emergency room.

While standing at the reception desk, she became so weak and nauseous that she couldn’t stand up and nearly passed out. An EKG confirmed that she was in the throes of a heart attack, with her right artery 99.9 percent blocked.

“Listening to NPR radio literally saved my life,” says Ravitsky of Westerville, Ohio, who regularly tunes in to station WOSU while driving. “Otherwise, I’d have probably kept brushing the symptoms aside until it was too late. They weren’t the classic heart attack symptoms that you see in TV movies. There was no crushing chest pain, just some odd feelings that didn’t go away. I’m forever grateful that I heard Gayle talking in my car that day.”

Gayle Forman, author of the newly-published novel, Leave Me, about an overworked mother who has a heart attack but goes about her life, was doing an interview about her book on Sept. 6 with NPR host Robin Young when the conversation turned to heart attack symptoms in women versus those experienced by men.

Gayle Forman

It’s a subject that is familiar to Forman, 46, since her own mother had a heart attack requiring bypass surgery at age 48.

“My mom’s story was the catalyst for my book,” Forman tells PEOPLE. “Women so often put the needs of others first and brush off their symptoms because they believe that heart attacks aren’t a possibility, even though they’re the number one killer of women.”

Gayle Forman

Like Maribeth, the working mother of twins in Leave Me, Ravitsky didn’t consider that she could be having a heart attack as she drove to her office on a Tuesday afternoon.

“I told myself it was a pinched nerve or indigestion,” she tells PEOPLE, “but as I was sitting there in traffic, I kept hearing Gayle refer to DITS — Don’t Ignore The Symptoms.”

“When I broke out into a cold sweat,” she adds, “I finally thought, ‘Okay, I have a decision to make here. If I go to the emergency room and it’s nothing, I’ll be really embarrassed. But what if I go to class and it turns out to be something serious?’ ”

As she inched forward to the stoplight, Ravitsky decided to phone the college and ask them to cancel her class. Then she dialed 911 and asked for directions to the hospital.

“Five minutes later,” I was walking into the ER, and not a moment too soon, she says. “As soon as I started to get checked in, I collapsed.”

A team of doctors and nurses worked quickly to open up her blocked artery with balloon angioplasty and stents.

“Their goal is to do it under 90 minutes, and my whole procedure, from start to finish, took 62 minutes,” says Ravitsky, who has no history of heart disease in her family.

“I am here today due to luck and timing,” she tells PEOPLE. “If I have one message to women it’s to not ignore possible symptoms, no matter how small. I found out later that 50 percent of women who have a heart attack never experience chest pain.”

Now undergoing cardiac rehab therapy as she prepares to return to her job, Ravitsky recently did a call-in interview with Forman on WOSU and looks forward to the day when the two can meet.

“What she said saved my life,” she says. “I’m looking forward to giving her a hug.”

As for Forman, she is elated that her lifelong love for the written word has had a personal impact.

“Cynthia and I are tied to each other now through this experience,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m so happy that given the choice of being embarrassed or sick or dead, she chose embarrassed. And I’d like to tell other women that as well. Go for embarrassed. It just might save your life.”