Lucci at the American Heart Association’s annual Go Red for Women Red Dress Collection in February in New York City.
Photo credit: Getty Images / Slaven Vlasic

Susan Lucci wants you to learn from her recent heart scare

Last fall, Susan Lucci, the Emmy-award-winning former daytime TV soap opera star and longtime Garden City resident, dodged a “widowmaker” heart attack. Ever since, she has been advocating for the American Heart Association, encouraging other women to heed the signs and make their heart health a priority.  Although heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, the American Heart Association says women shrug off the warning signs, often attributing subtle symptoms to indigestion, the flu or aging. Also, for women, other obligations such as family often take precedence over their own health.  In an interview, Lucci, 72, best known for her portrayal of diva extraordinaire Erica Kane on the long-running series “All My Children” from 1970 to 2011, says she is feeling “very lucky” these days and describes a new obligation to share her story with others. “Somehow if my story can resonate with even one woman,” she says, “I need to try to pass my good luck on.”  In early October 2018, while Lucci waited to be seated for dinner at a restaurant, she says she felt a slight tightness in her chest and ribs that radiated to her back. The pain went away, but about 10 days later the same symptoms resurfaced. “I thought, maybe it’s this new bra I’m wearing,” she says. “As a woman you don’t think you have anything wrong with you.”  By the end of the month, however, there was no denying that Lucci was in the midst of a medical emergency. “I was shopping for a birthday gift at Tory Burch in Manhasset when I felt very strong pressure — like an elephant pressing on my chest — that’s the only way I can describe it,” she says. As the pain worsened, she sat down to try to make sense of what was happening, all the while stressing over the other errands on her to-do list. “I’m sure this will pass,” she thought. Plus, she had more shopping to do. “I have to get my grandson’s christening cup, and this is my chance to do it,” she recalls thinking.  Her plans were thwarted when the quick-thinking store manager, alarmed by Lucci’s symptoms, promptly drove her to the emergency room. Once there, the pain subsided again, but her symptoms were significant enough to warrant testing. A CAT scan revealed a 90 percent blockage in her main artery and a 75 percent blockage in the adjacent artery. Lucci was rushed into surgery, where stents were inserted into the arteries to clear the blockages. She narrowly escaped a full-blown heart attack.  Soon after, she learned that despite her “pristine” medical history, healthy diet and physically active lifestyle, the damage to her arteries was caused by calcium deposits, a trait inherited from her father, who at age 49 suffered a mild heart attack. “It turned out that I had some DNA from my dad — not just his Italian coloring,” she says. “It was a combination of genetics and also stress.”

Touched by an Angel

Lucci believes her guardian angel was with her that day. I was so lucky,” she says. Lucky that the store manager was also a trained nurse, lucky she was just a mile from St. Francis Hospital, the Heart Center — and lucky she was not at home when the symptoms reappeared because she says she would have probably ignored them once again. Now, she pays it forward by telling other women, “Between career and home and family it doesn’t leave much time for you, but take that moment to take care of yourself. Nobody needs to die of a heart attack.”

A New Outlook

Although the surgery wasn’t a lifestyle wake-up call for Lucci, it impacted her in other ways. On the drive home from the hospital the day after surgery, she gazed out the window as she passed through Garden City, where she has lived since the age of seven. It’s here where she recalls “sweeter times,” as a child riding her bicycle through town with her girlfriends, swimming at the local pool, eating ice cream cones and walking down Cathedral Avenue to the Hempstead Bus Terminal to catch a ride to Jones Beach. Suddenly, a profound appreciation for her surroundings washed over her. ‘‘This is so funny,” she recalls saying to her husband of 49 years, Helmut Huber, “but I’m seeing the sky and these beautiful trees and lawns like it’s for the first time.” On the downside, the health scare left her feeling vulnerable. “It shook my confidence,” she says. “I’d always been so healthy. Now I think — am I really ok?” The quick fix for Lucci was getting back to the life she loves. With just two days of bed rest and the OK from her cardiologist, she was on stage — just days after her surgery — reprising her Broadway role in the comedy “Celebrity Autobiography” at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center. “It was a very important thing for me to do. It was taking my life back.” Reflecting on her health crisis and fortunate outcome, Lucci says, “I am beyond grateful. I love my life . . . I get to be with people I love and do what I love to do. I am on my knees every morning thanking God. I am so lucky I survived.” LIL

Lucci Sightings

Hallmark Channel – Lucci is the executive producer of a series in pre-production in which she plays the lead as a writer based in Palm Beach, Florida. QVC – Lucci promotes her collection of fitness clothes and the Pilates PRO Chair.
Stage Performances – Lucci’s tentative schedule includes: “Celebrity Autobiography” at the Patchogue Theatre on July 14 at East Hampton’s Guild Hall on Aug. 23

A Chat with Lucci

Advice for showbiz newbies? “I just believe in studying with the best teachers you can. Keep your eyes open. Then, when you are lucky to get that break, be ready for it. Learn your lines. Know what you are doing.” If you hadn’t become an actress what would you have done? [Long pause.] “I don’t think there’s any other thing for me to do. It’s how I played as a little girl. I made up stories and acted out all the parts. My mother let me play in her room and I would take out scarves and jewelry and high heels and sing and put on the Broadway cast albums. It’s just who I am.” What would people be surprised to learn about you? “Oh my goodness, at this point people know way too much,” she says, noting that she is on Instagram. “I do like to bake. I saved my grandmother’s apple cake recipe. I bake her apple cake and her cookies. My grandchildren love that apple cake and I love to see them love it.”

A Shout-Out of Thanks

After talking to Long Island Living, Lucci called back, saying she felt compelled to elaborate on another event in her life that sparked gratitude and that until now she has only shared with those closest to her. “The truth is, almost losing my son as a baby has had the most profound influence on me,” she says. “Before — I took things for granted. I was carefree.” That changed in 1980 when Lucci was pregnant with her second child. The flu was in full swing and Lucci caught it a week before giving birth at what is now NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. Thirty-six hours after her son, Andreas, was born he was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They gave him a spinal tap and took pictures of his heart. For the next week, while waiting for the results that confirmed the baby had the flu, Lucci kept watch day and night over her newborn. “As he lay in the NICU isolette, I would open the porthole, put my finger in to hold his hand and tell him I loved him,” she says. The doctors and nurses were supportive. “Back then Winthrop was so ahead of its time,” Lucci says. “They allowed parents to visit 24/7.” On one occasion, she says she dropped in unexpectedly and watched as a nurse cuddled Andreas while singing him a lullaby. “Every time I visited, the nurses were holding the babies and talking to them.” Although she privately thanked staffers all those years ago, Lucci says she now wants to publicly recognize the NICU team of 1980. “At Winthrop I witnessed incredible humanity, skill and science,” Lucci says. “They saved my baby. Andreas is now 39 years old. He’s big and tall and married with a 15-month-old son of his own.”