The Hollywood Heart Attack: In the... - British Heart Fou...

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The Hollywood Heart Attack


In the Columbo episode "Troubled Waters" the actor Robert Vaughn feigns a heart attack at the side of the pool of a cruise ship

He gives a dramatic performance- clutching his chest, giving agonised cries and falling into the pool with arms and legs flailing

In order to fool the ship's doctor and the captain (Patrick Macnee) he has taken some substance said to mimic the symptoms of an attack

I am currently awaiting a quadruple bypass following my "presenting to A&E with chest pain" I had walked into the hospital spent 5 hours in the Resuscitation Unit and walked out again

The "chest pain" had developed overnight and I ended up feeling as if I had been punched repeatedly about the body by a professional boxer

Other descriptions I have read of similar experiences liken it to a kick in the chest by a horse or being sat on by an elephant

The beta-blockers and blood-thinners I was given soon dispelled the pain and I am now described as being "symptom-free" In fact one cardiac surgeon said that I have the option of doing nothing as I am ok on medication

The operation is the recommendation of a Joint Cardiac Conference "for prognostic reasons" but "heart attack" as such has never been mentioned

On "24 hours in A&E" last night a cardiologist told a patient's daughter that her elderly mother had had "a funny turn" and then died

So what is a heart attack? what does it look like? and how do we know when we have had one?

(Incidentally, if you want to see people react quickly go into A&E and say you have chest pain It must be more effective than shouting "fire" or I suspect than saying that you are having a heart attack)

36 Replies

When my Husband had his heart attack he had pain for 24 hours before seeking medical attention. It did not bear any resemblance to any screen depiction of a heart attack.

My Husband described the feeling of pins and needles and numbness to his hands and arms and a constrictive feeling across his chest accompanied by nausea. We stupidly assumed it was either a trapped nerve, a strain on heartburn.

He refused to go to the walk in centre until he'd had a cup of tea and even had his last cigarette outside before going in. He explained his symptoms and he was seen immediately and in an ambulance within 30 minutes.

I don't believe there is a typical version of what a heart attack looks like and diagnosis is by appropriate medical tests, I suspect the phrase Heart Attack is usually used by the general populous to cover any pain connected to the heart because it's the one condition everyone has heard of.

Best of luck with your operation

Many thanks for your interest in responding

I have done a bit more research on a Columbo website

Apparently the substance used to fake the "heart attack" was amyl nitrate but wrongly described as nitrite and which in fact would tend to open blood vessels and thus aid recovery and not create an adverse condition

Furthermore they say that the nurse was putting the blood pressure cuff on Robert Vaughn's elbow not his arm and that the doctor was not making proper contact with the stethoscope

So there you are! But nothing is said about the "trope" of the portrayal of heart attacks

It's the same with detectives always tasting white powder with their fourth finger and announcing that it is heroin/cocaine

I think TV dramas tend to show a cardiac arrest rather than a heart attack. I thought they were the same until I had heart problems.

A heart attack is when blood flow to the heart is blocked, and sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating unexpectedly. A heart attack is a “circulation” problem and sudden cardiac arrest is an “electrical” problem.

Thanks so much for responding

I am sure you are right and there is a difference between what my gp refers to as the "plumbing" and "electrics"

In my case cardioversion was raised because of the irregular heartbeat but not taken further

On the other hand the "plumbing" is being addressed because the numerous tests have shown narrowed arteries but stents have never been proposed-nor angioplasty

I have been asking this question for years!! My husband had a pain in his upper back which got worse over night. Went A&E as it was Xmas period & surgery was closed. Was told it was a sprain, pain got worse over the next 2 days & spread to arm/chest. Further 2 visits to A&E & GP & all said muscle strain/sprain/virus, 20 mins back from GP surgery he went into cardiac arrest, which again is nothing like you see on TV. Hospital admitted they got it wrong & he'd had massive heart attack. So if the hospital couldn't recognise a heart attack having done all the blood tests, ecg etc. what chance have I got!!

And many thanks to you Lezzers for the interesting response

I certainly seem to have had better luck with our local hospital(Kingston)

My wife took me to A&E at 4 pm on a Thursday

To my surprise it was empty apart from someone collecting a note from the desk

Previously when I have been it has always been packed and it was when I left at 9 pm

I was shown into a cubicle where a nurse was waiting ready to take my blood pressure and then I was straight into the Resuscitation Unit

I know that my heart rate was all over the place and they said that there was not enough oxygen in my blood

Then it was an oxygen cannula, saline drip, blood sample, X-ray, ECG, temperature, heart beat rate, medication-I even had a doctor to look me over!

They were going to keep me in overnight to see a cardiologist in the morning but that was dropped

That's a good response from the hospital for you. I do wonder if things might have been different for my husband had it not been the Xmas period. He had x rays, blood tests, ECG's etc so how could it be missed!!

in reply to Lezzers

That’s a bad hospital mistake. If it was a heart attack, Troponin would have been in his blood tests and how they missed that is bizarre to say the least.

in reply to Dickydon

I know, at one point the paramedics did an ECG in the ambulance & then were unsure whether to actually take him to the hospital, but they said as the "T" waves were slightly raised & the hospital wasn't far they decided to take him!! It was a whole catalogue of disasters & just got worse as he was in & out of the hospital for the next 6 months. I could write a book about it. This happened 21 years ago, did they do Troponin blood tests back then? Heart attack must have crossed their minds at one point as they used a GTN spray which unfortunately made him sick. I've learnt a lot since then!!

in reply to Lezzers

I’m not sure if Troponin was part of the blood testing procedure back then; admittedly, today though, they’re so much more advanced than 20 plus years ago with heart attack investigations whereas Troponin tells them to what extent damage has been done to the heart muscle. Mine was quite elevated last June when I had a heart attack. But never got stented, because my arteries were very clear for a 58yr old, must be all that fish and butter I eat... but eventually had a Pacemaker fitted in the August.

In my case in one letter the cardiologist refers to "a borderline troponin level" at A&E which I believe is a medical indication of a heart attack

Also I did read somewhere that a distinguished professor at St Thomas' has said that even in the 1980s if a person presented with a heart attack they were sent home with an aspirin and told to take it easy

I can remember Dr Thomas Stuttaford in The Times used to say that a glass of red wine and an aspirin a day would guard against a heart attack

(I have just realised that all my life I have been spelling aspirin as asprin!)

They never said it was a heart attack, until he'd gone into cardiac arrest & was on life support. They firstly said it was a muscle strain, then a muscle sprain then a muscle virus!! Really don't understand how all these tests didn't show up anything....or did they & they were ignored/dismissed!! I'm sure it wouldnt happen these days

in reply to Lezzers

U know th wh happened to me about four times kp going gp saying muscular pain kp goin bk home with painkillers but with me the pain didn’t spread just stayed in back shoulder then one dr did ecg immediately took me to do angioplasty I was in complete shock as I expected symptoms to be different and I was quite healthy no bp no cholesterol nor drink smoke

in reply to Lezzers

I had back shoulder pain on off for a mth gp kp say muscular the day I went into er they still said muscular then they did a ecg rushed me to do a angioplasty I overheard the doctors saying it was a ha I had no other symptoms except fatigue which I associated with anaemia which also meant I had blood infusions so I agree the films give a totally different pic people have different symptons and most often are misdiagnosed

I would have liked your A&E if they moved quickly. Unfortunately I was in for 17 hours before being transferred to an observation ward. It was 26 hours before a doctor gave me a memory test. I didn’t see a cardiologist until I’d had four more heart attacks and I’d been in hospital for a week. The last four days on bed rest to stop the attacks. My pain was as you described (like someone sitting on your chest) but I wasn’t believed!

That sounds awful

In Kingston it is A&E/Cardiac which must help in sorting out arrivals

They also have a "triage" room to separate the more serious cases

If you go into NHS Review you can post anonymous frank comments on any surgery, hospital or pharmacy

Love Columbo , watched everyone and took his autobiography on holiday last year :) .

I recall the episode they found the capsule in the pool filtration system . Like you said he used Amil nitrate or Poppers as it's commonly known to raise his heart rate to send himself into cardiac arrest .

Thanks for responding Deano I always enjoy your posts


when I had a heart attack due to blocked circumflex, it started like indigestion but eventually ( within 5 mins) felt like a bear had gripped me and I was getting a full on bear hug around my upper body, coupled with the uncontrolable feeling of nausea, and wretching.

So I guess everyone is different and the motto must be if you feel that unwell get to A&E and get checked out

in reply to Hidden

Thanks for you interest

In my case as I have said I felt I had been in the ring with a professional boxer! But then I think I had gone to sleep with the tv on and there must have been some boxing on

Well, what is a cold/flu like? Some people get a barely discernible sniffle, some are bed-ridden for a week and more. It's the same with heart attacks - they cover a huge range from feeling a bit off-colour (mine!) to causing catastrophic damage. Public ignorance of the whole range of severity and milder symptoms, is a big problem, I think.

I strongly suspect that like many actors Robert Vaughn asked for guidance on how to play the scene and was told "OTT darling OTT" which is what he did

For me it was 1982 driving home I knew I needed to stop, difficult to describe, but the chest pain was such that I had no choice but to stop.

I think we all present in different ways which makes it difficult for the Medics etc to just say Yes you are having a Heart attack or No it's indigestion. One thing in my case I had no prior warning I was working as normal up until it happened. I would just say if you feel really unwell get it checked out !!!


I think that is why doctors will describe it as "having a funny turn"

In "Treasure Island" the old sea captain had a "thundering apoplexy"

You're a literary genius Dickyticker!!

Good luck to you. xx

Well that is unexpected and very kind of you!

Must have been the Treasure Island reference (and Peter Falk references too!!). Just remember my granddad making me read and memorise a chapter and recite it back every week. 60 years ago and I still can't forget that!!

You really do make us smile xx

Many thanks again

My favourite authors are Somerset Maugham and Hilaire Belloc

I teach English to foreign students when I can in retirement (they are so bright!) and I have had quite a lot published in legal periodicals over the years

You make me smile too!

I'm a retired safety officer!! Our oldest son is a professor of English and our youngest is an archaeologist!! I like to think their intelligence comes from my side of the family (I sincerely doubt it though!). Good luck to you in your health and ventures xx

That's lovely to hear

I married late in life and we have 3 children

The youngest 18 at drama school, the oldest a personal trainer and the middle one an apprenticed plumber

None are particularly "academic" but they are doing what they want to do and are good at, which is the main thing

I practised as a solicitor for 40 years and at one time was a part-time external Ph D student at King's College in the Strand

Now of course I regret giving it up but at the time I found the college staff very rude and the students too immature even though I was hardly ever there-plus I was also Assistant Town Clerk in a London Borough and the council were good enough to pay all the college fees

That's life!

Blimey you've certainly accomplished so much. Our youngest lad thought it'd be great fun taking an archaeology degree as he pictured himself with a few Carlings sitting in the shade of a pyramid or two with a brush!! He was disappointed when he found there was actual work to be done!!

We too have just encouraged our kids to do what they want in life. They're our best friends as well as being our kids (37 and 39 but you still see them at the school gates aged 4 don't you!!). xxx

I thought of you as a safety officer when watching "24 hours in A&E" the other night

This tree worker had fallen 40 ft onto a concrete pavement

They showed him back the tree with no safety equipment as far as I could see as he apparently went straight up it again on his discharge from St George's

He seemed ok apart from some cuts and bruises

and he was limping a bit

I'd have slapped him about a bit if I'd have seen him!!!

One of our neighbours once told me that she had noticed a young lady walking past her house and realised that it was our daughter

She had been so used to seeing her going down the road in the push chair!

We have 5 adults in our household and it tends to run as a hostel for homeless persons with self-catering facilities

When we go to Spain each year to a one-bedroom family apartment we sleep all over the place on settees and mattresses on the floor in the living room with communal feeding

One of my targets after the bypass is to be fit to go in August-if I don't feel confident to fly I will stay behind

Just waiting, waiting, waiting for St Thomas'

Fingers crossed you get sorted out soon and on that plane. You might not want to sprawl out on the floor though!! Just thinking of hubby's experiences after his quad bypass. A comfy chair might be the thing to go for!! Good luck. We're both thinking of you xxx

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