Sara Dye, a military spouse, tells her story of heart disease during Friday’s American Heart Association Go Red for Women Luncheon in Richmond. (Photo by David Proett)

FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 23, 2012)--A self-proclaimed "worry-wart," Sara Dye checks every new blemish for skin cancer and gets increasingly concerned when a headache lasts "a bit longer than normal," fearing the possibility of a brain tumor.

Her obsession with health grew in September 2008 when she faced a life-threatening situation that no 31-year-old with low blood pressure, perfect cholesterol numbers and no family history of heart disease would ever anticipate. It started with a slight heaviness in her chest.

"I assumed it was indigestion from eating too much, too quickly," said Dye, the spouse of a Fort Lee military member. "I took some Tums and went to bed, but was awake most of the night with nausea, cold chills and sweating."

After not feeling better the following night, she decided to be seen at an urgent care facility because she felt like she was experiencing some type of lung problem.

"I explained my symptoms to the doctor and apologized for monopolizing his time for a case of bad indigestion," Dye said. "He agreed that it was, indeed, probably indigestion, but he wanted to do a quick EKG to err on the side of caution. That one decision saved my life."

After the EKG came back abnormal, the doctor told Dye she needed to be seen at a hospital for additional screening - and she needed to go immediately - by ambulance. Dye's husband, Maj. Erik Dye from the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade, went to the hospital to meet his wife during her testing.

"I didn't feel a sense of urgency by the medical staff," she said. "They took one look at me, then my medical chart and visibly relaxed. They all did their job wonderfully, but I sensed that nobody felt this was a particularly critical situation. Nobody believed that this healthy 31-year-old-woman was having a heart attack."

The emergency room on-call doctor came in puzzled and told her she did indeed show signs of a heart attack the previous night.

"A male nurse - who had been friendly and reassuring to me since I had arrived - burst through the door, shaking his head. He didn't believe the news and was certain the test results had been mixed up," said Dye. "He made it his mission to recheck the test results, but quietly entered the room 20 minutes later, confirming what he had doubted."

Dye said even with the tests done in the weeks after her heart attack, there were no clear answers. She was discharged with "a pile of prescriptions medications and a tentative diagnosis of heart disease."

Since then, Dye - a fourth grade learning disabilities teacher at Winterpock Elementary School in Chesterfield County - said she has tried to tell others about her story to raise awareness. On Friday, she was a guest speaker at the American Heart Association Go Red for Women Luncheon in Richmond.

"I was so excited when (the organization) asked me to participate," said Dye. "Despite the fact that I'm not at all a public speaker, I jumped at the chance to share my story and help women learn about their bodies and stay healthy. The support and love I felt from the Go Red organizers, as well as the attendees, was overwhelming."

During her speech, Dye told the attendees never to assume that heart disease couldn't touch them.

"I had absolutely no risk factors, but here I am speaking about my heart event," she said during the luncheon. "Know your body, make healthy choices, but also do not hesitate to get checked out when things feel off. Trust your instincts."

Along those lines, Dye said it's important to be an advocate for your health.

"If your doctor tries to dismiss your symptoms, force the issue," she said. "Request at least an EKG to rule out a heart attack. I was so fortunate that I saw that particular doctor at the urgent care facility that day. I have told my story to countless doctors - good doctors - over the past three years and many of them have told me that based on my symptoms, they would have prescribed me an antacid and sent me home.

"That is exactly why supporting the Go Red for Women campaign is so important," Dye continued. "We need more research, advocacy and awareness among women and medical professionals."

Dye said she thinks it's important to get her story out there because it usually hits people hard, and they tend to pay attention.

"I don't look like someone who should have suffered a heart attack at 31 years old," she said. "When they see me and hear my story, they realize that heart disease can happen to anybody and we all need to be aware and ready."