Lana with her sons

Lana and Annette's SCAD heart attack stories

It's not surprising that sisters Lana Huntley and Annette Maher have a lot in common

But, until last year, they'd never imagined that having a SCAD heart attack would be added to their list of sisterly traits.

Lana and Annette

They are now working with the Institute's scientists to try and shed light on the genetic causes of this disease, which back in 2002 was barely known about.

"There were just a handful of cases when I had my SCAD," recalls Annette, 59. "I was told there were just nine other women they knew about, so as you can imagine, it was terrifying and confusing."

Annette was driving in her car with her three children, aged six, four and two, in the back seat when she realised something was wrong.

"I was heading off to lunch with some girlfriends when I felt a sharp pain, like a knife through the back of my chest, and I realised I needed to cancel my lunch. I called my older sister, who told me to phone for an ambulance which I did."

At the hospital, they discovered that as well as suffering a SCAD heart attack, she was also experiencing ventricular fibrillation and her heart went into sudden cardiac arrest.

"It's very rare to survive an episode like this. My heart went crazy and stopped pumping blood. I was in the hospital for about a week."
Lana in hospital

Seventeen long years later, Annette suffered what is now believed to be her second SCAD heart attack. Whilst it was never formally diagnosed at hospital, SCAD heart attack survivors have around a 20-30 per cent chance of having another attack.

"It was not completely unexpected, but we never suspected it could run in our family. It was a huge shock when my sister Lana had her SCAD heart attack. Like me, she was fit and healthy then, and we didn't think she could be at risk."

Lana's SCAD occurred in June 2022 when she was having breakfast with friends.

Lana, 52, recalls: "I felt this pain go across my arms, shoulders and chest and I felt really bad. My friend drove me to the pharmacy to get pain relief, and it started to get even worse, and I asked her to call an ambulance. Within a few minutes, I had an ECG and when I got to the hospital they told me they thought it was a heart attack.

"I was in the hospital when the surgeon showed me on screen that I was having a SCAD that my artery was splitting right in front of me. They could do nothing to stop it at the time. And then, much later, it started to repair itself. The artery usually does that in the case of SCAD heart attacks."

Recovery after a SCAD heart attack is very different to a heart attack caused by a build-up of plaque.

Lana says "I've never been a drinker or smoker so I didn't have to change my diet or go on statins or work on lowering my cholesterol. But I have been told that stressful events can put me at risk of having another SCAD. So for me, it's about recognising triggers."

The sisters now want to discover if their family has a genetic predisposition to SCAD.

Lana and Annette with their sisters
"Given my sister and I have both had SCAD heart attacks, we are convinced SCAD is in our genes. Now we want to do everything we can to get answers so my nieces, my sons and their future families can be protected from this awful disease which hits without warning" says Lana.

As well as Lana's DNA being studied by the Institute, she has also been added to the international SCAD Registry – called iSCAD – which is a growing database of information from SCAD patients around the world. The Institute is the only site in Australia that is part of iSCAD.

Lana is also being monitored by the Institute's Professor Jason Kovacic, who is leading research into the first gene ever linked to SCAD, which is called PHACTR1.

In the meantime, life goes on. Lana, aged 52, is about to head to Disneyland with her two sons. "I'll obviously be careful when I am there. I’ll stick strictly to Prof. Kovacic’s advice, and I certainly won't be going on a rollercoaster," says Lana.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years