I Didn’t Think My Heart Attack Was a Big Deal: Why I Was Wrong
It was Sunday, March 24th, at 6:30 a.m. I finally got up to feed my devilishly persistent cats. Their regular MO is to run around using me as a springboard in order to wake me up and get my attention. They didn’t really care that it was Sunday and that I wanted to sleep in. I slowly got up and immediately noticed the irritating burning under my chin. It felt as if I was trying to have a sore throat; you know that feeling you have right before you get sick? I ignored it and continued to the kitchen and the task of feeding the cats. Fifteen minutes later with the cats satisfied, I headed back to bed, but quickly noticed that the irritation was getting worse. In fact, it felt as if someone was taking sandpaper to the area just below my chin and down the front of my chest to the tip of my stomach.
It was at this point, I thought “something is not right here…this is definitely not right.” I felt a moment of panic and took an antacid as if that would help (which of course it did not). I laid down and felt a bit of relief. Then the pain began to spread. Up until now it had been running vertically. Now it was spreading across my front from shoulder to shoulder and eventually shoulder to shoulder across my back. While I knew something was definitely not “right” I still got into a shower. I remembered thinking “well I haven’t died yet so it can’t be that bad.”
I got dressed and then called my friend and neighbor and said “I’m trying to decide whether I’m having a heart attack.” She asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital and I said yes. A few minutes later she was at my front door. It took us 20 minutes to get to my HMO. As we drove, my conversation dwindled as my symptoms worsened to the point where I could not speak.
Once I walked into the ER, I was rapidly admitted and a few minutes later they confirmed I was having a cardiac “event.”
Tip #1: Do NOT have a friend drive you 20 minutes to a hospital. Call 911. Make an agreement with people close to you that if something life-threatening is happening, whether a heart attack, stroke or an assault, that you seek out the professional help you need. Friends or family are there for support and comfort only.
In my case, I knew I couldn’t drive myself, and given that logic neither should anyone else. I will say I wasn’t actually thinking very rationally. Taking a shower was not the top priority. This irrational thinking reminded me of the time I was in a bank robbery where the robbers took over the entire branch. I threw all the money I had into my trash can as I had been trained by the “what to do in a robbery” training videos. Since one of the bandits had a gun and was wearing a mask, this was definitely a life and death situation. You never really know how you will respond in this type of situation. That’s how I felt when I was having the heart attack. I wanted everything to be “normal” and I think my misguided logic said if I call 911, it’s definitely not normal. This is a coping mechanism. I remembered thinking I don’t want to call 911 because I don’t want to be the house that everyone comes out to see what’s going on. Not rational either.
Back in the ER and several tests later, they scheduled me to have an angiogram early the next morning. An angiogram would give them a precise view of what was going on inside my heart and arteries.
Around 5 p.m they finally told me I was being moved to a regular room and what a blessing this was. The frenzy and brief horror of the ER was quickly forgotten as I settled into my room. Thankfully, I had it to myself. That night was a series of meds and BP checks and intermittent sleep. Having never gone through and angiogram, or recently spoken to someone who had, I was managing my anxiety by listening and watching the C.A.R.E. channel on my TV. I watched the parade of relaxing scenes and listened to a meditation that relaxed and calmed me about the upcoming procedure. Kudos to Kaiser for this service!
After being pushed to the back of the line several times for anogiograms a team appeared at 1 p.m. to prep me for the procedure. Finally, we would have some answers. While everyone agreed I’d had an MI (myocardial infarction) they couldn’t actually agree upon why. All of my previous test results – cholesterol, triglycerides, etc. – were quite stellar. Everyone kept wondering (including myself) how could I have had a heart attack when my test results were so good? Well, it turns out those test results are just “generally accepted” guidelines for a larger swath of the population. Okay, but I still wasn’t sold on this response.
Up until the time I went for the procedure, they were all floating the possibility that I was experiencing “shibutani” also known as “broken heart syndrome” because test results just “didn’t fit.” This theory made no sense to me because my life was pretty normal and my time for “broken heart” syndrome was about 9 years too late.
As the team wheeled me out, they told my friends it would be about an hour and half and then I would be back. As it turned out I was gone for 3 hours and by that time my friend who had driven me to the hospital was frantically trying to find out what was happening with me.
The first thing they told me in the procedure/operating room was that most people don’t remember what goes on during the procedure. They do not put you “out” but rather give you enough meds to feel no pain and still be awake and aware. I remember most everything and I won’t go into details. I will say I felt comfortably numb and mostly kept them entertained when they were not focusing on cleaning out my arteries and inserting the stents.
As it turned out my left anterior descending artery was 99% blocked. When I looked at the before picture of this artery, it looked “broken” in that nothing or very little was getting through. Apparently, the right coronary artery was clogged too – about 85%. That’s pretty major. So much for “broken heart syndrome.” I sometimes wonder how I was able to do three zumba classes a week and never experience a symptom.
Tip #2. What or how things appear outwardly is not always indicative of what’s truly going on inside.
By inside, I mean, inside your body or your mind. Too often we say one thing and actually think or want another. In my case my test results showed something quite differently than what was actually going on inside my body. I honestly thought I’d escaped the bad genetics. My mother and her siblings and parents, all died relatively young (my mother was 57) of massive heart attacks. Several years prior I’d mentioned this to my primary care physician, but based on my test results (and they were consistently good) she never felt the need to screen deeper. I can’t really blame her.
Additionally, when I went for my follow up with her five days after I was released from the hospital, she kept telling me how great I looked (I’m not really sure how you are supposed to look after a heart attack). Okay, that’s a nice compliment but it kind of did a head job on me. I disregarded what a big event this actually was and how it impacted me over the next several weeks and months.
Over the next few weeks I went through a wide range of emotions from being cocky to “are these pains normal?,” to “oh shit I AM mortal.” I realized I had minimized what happened to me with the heart attack. Part of this is just denial. Who wants to admit that they are mortal? We cannot dwell on our mortality or we wouldn’t be able to experience a full life. I have mostly been being with the discomfort and denial of my heart attack and present to the myriad of feelings I was experiencing. I was finally able to love and comfort myself and fully acknowledge this as the life-shaping event it was and continues to be.
Which brings me to…
Tip #3 You – me – we absolutely, 100% deserve to be seen and acknowledged with love and compassion even when we get things “wrong.” We all deserve this acknowledgment purely because we exist. Getting things “wrong” simply means we haven’t found a better way yet to do something. Right or wrong is a judgment and a perspective. Let them go if they do not help you.
We all have an “expiration” date. Most of us don’t know when it will be and that’s a good thing. For me, I knew it wasn’t my time. I have many more years to go (although they seem to fly by now much faster than they used to). It doesn’t matter whether you have days, or years left on this planet. What matters is that you live each day with love, compassion (self and others) and with purpose and intention because facing your mortality is a big deal. What matters is that you live each day – each moment – with the awareness of who you are as a human being and that you learn to love yourself unconditionally.