One Woman Many Hats

Mother, Grandmother, Preschool Director ….and Heart Attack Survivor

by jennifer molk

No one would have believed that Jan Bakko, a 54 year old woman who walks, exercises, eats well and doesn’t smoke, would have a heart attack.

So when Jan, a local mom, grandmother and beloved preschool director, was hiking with her family in Red Lodge two years ago and felt the first sign that something wasn’t quite right (a feeling that had nothing to do with her heart), she still couldn’t have imagined it would lead to a heart attack.

On the trail to trouble

In November 2007, a violent snowstorm ripped through our region, dumping snow and downing trees. Jan and her family were in the Red Lodge area, hiking the Silver Run Trail.

“It has several different loops,” Jan remembers. “My husband was with a handicapped friend, so they could only walk a short distance. But I felt so good that I decided I was going to walk the much larger loop.”

When Jan reached the nearby river, she was met with a cluster of trees that had fallen under the weight of the snow.  The only way to pass through was to crawl in and out of the trees.

“And all of a sudden my throat got really really really cold, like I was out on a day that was really cold,” she continued. “I actually took my coat off and wrapped it around my face and thought, if I could just warm up my throat then I would feel better. And that didn’t work. It just was ice cold. So I decided to lie down for a little bit thinking maybe I’ll feel better if I just rest here.”

Many thoughts were racing through her mind, including, am I having a panic attack?

The feeling eventually subsided, so later in the month, the adventurous preschool director set out for another family hiking holiday, this time in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“It was the day after Thanksgiving,” Jan explained. “I had taken our grandkids for a walk and came back in and it happened again, where it got really, really cold in my throat, only it was way worse.”

This time however, in addition to the cold sensation, Jan couldn’t catch her breath. Again, she lay down for awhile.

After sharing her concerns with her family, Jan was urged to get medical attention. What doctors initially thought to be acid reflux turned out to be a heart attack. She was immediately given nitroglycerin, which Jan says calmed her symptoms down a bit.

“They called a cardiologist.  I really feel blessed that they did because since then I have heard of so many women who go home and die because our symptoms are so different,” she says.

What Jan means by “different” is the symptoms in heart attacks between men and women. Jan is voicing what so many women have come to mistakenly believe about heart attacks – that everyone’s symptoms will be the traditional tell-tale same: pain in the left arm or shoulder.

But Jan felt only a strange icy sensation in her throat and a subsequent shortness of breath, neither of which were near the heart. The possibility of a heart attack couldn’t have been further from her mind at those moments.

In fact, indigestion tops the list of symptoms of a heart attack in women, according to www.medicinenet.com, and is much lower on the list of classic symptoms for men.

Jan promptly had a stent put in and safely returned to Billings to receive ongoing care from a local cardiologist. In addition, Jan sought care from a naturopathic professional, altered her diet and upped her exercise routine to 30 minutes each day for six days each week.

Jan wants every woman to know that a heart attack can strike anyone at anytime, and no one is immune.

“My mom and dad both died of heart attacks,” she shares, “but they died in their seventies. And I was 54! So I really thought I had 20 years before I had to seriously think about the symptoms. I exercise; I had just had my cholesterol checked. Everything came out fine (in June of that year. Her heart attack took place the following November). There really wasn’t any heads-up that it was happening.”

Moreover, Jan said she experienced no pain.

Today, Jan admits she often wonders if it will happen again.

“How can I ever go hiking in the mountains again,” she poses, “when both times it happened in the mountains? But then I think, how can I ever not go hiking in the mountains again? Because it just feeds my soul.”

Jan’s doctors have given her the go ahead. Today, she has no restrictions.

“I asked them, is there any way I can know that this is going to happen again?” she says. “And they both said no, there isn’t. All I can do is take the best care of myself that I can, and live my life.”

Jan has since returned to the family sport she loves so much: four- and six-mile hikes throughout Red Lodge.

“It was kind of scary,” she laughs now. “I said to Bob, my husband, I hope you can carry me out if you need to and he said yeah, I can carry you back. Coming back and realizing I did it – I think that’s huge, and gives me confidence to be able to do it again.”  SFM

You Should Know

Almost every minute a women dies from heart disease.

Heart disease is the #1 killer of women

Knowledge is the the best way to fight Heart Disease.

February is National Heart Disease awareness month

February 5th is National Wear Red for Women day.  Find more helpful information at


Know the differences in symptoms between men and women:


• Chest pain

• Jaw or shoulder pain

• Nausea

• Shortness of breath or burning feeling

• Indigestion or heartburn

• Weakness or fatigue


• Chest pain

• Pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach

• Shortness of breath

• Cold sweats

• Nausea

• Lightheadedness

Calling 9-1-1 is the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment. The American Heart Association also urges seeking Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for the quickest transport options to the hospital.

Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer in Billings.  She enjoys writing aout topics and issues that she herself seeks the answers to.  She is a mother of two.