The Yoga Teacher's Heart Attack
Me? A zenny yoga teacher with a heart problem?! Fancy that!
And it isn't that I had a wee heart problem. I had a blocked artery.
I will be the first to admit that prior to my own heart issues, I was judgey. I was convinced heart problems and/or heart attacks mainly happened to chubby, white fellas who didn't exercise. You know the type: white dude, puffing on a cigar, power-forking through marbled steaks, scarfing eating donuts, sloshing half-and-half in his morning cuppa. The data supports my judgey-ness. A short list of heart attack dudes:
Gangster Lucky Luciano (cigars, weight, job stressors clearly factors for Lucky.)
John Candy. Elvis, Orson Welles, James Cagney.
U.S. presidents John Adams, James Madison, Rutherford Hayes,
Grover Cleveland, William Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower,
Lyndon Johnson. Bill Clinton. (clearly, being president is a health hazard)
Boris Yeltsin. Menachem Begin. Nelson Rockefeller. William Boeing.
Phew! Glad I’m not a power-hungry white male in charge of stuff.
But, still. There I was, righteously pretending to like kale, dabbling in veganism, practicing hot yoga – 90 minute classes, no less – through my 40s. I biked to work, took my twins to play tennis and certainly didn’t smoke or imbibe in illicit drugs.
Smugly, I assumed heart problems were reserved for the inactive schlubs who weren’t taking good care of their health. They had earned their heart problems, right?
(As a weird aside, in the category of full disclosure, I was convinced I was going to get breast cancer, that would be my battle. My mother had breast cancer before age 60, my father had prostate cancer, his mother had breast cancer, his aunt also had breast cancer. When I turned 35, I got a lot of pamphlets about how daughters of women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer prior to age 60 were likely to have cancer 12 - 15 years younger than their mother. “You’ll want to be extra vigilant in your 40s, and your cancer window would be age 43 – 47,” counseled the ob-gyn. Cancer window ... two words you don't wanna hear. )
In fact, I taught hot yoga for over twelve years and often challenged myself to stand on one leg while teaching to better boost the calorie burn by engaging the large muscles ... and yet ...
I had a heart attack. Which didn’t look anything like the ones we see on the telly. There was no dramatic clutching of the chest and falling face forward. There was no heroic paramedic doing CPR for 22 minutes, zapping me with the electric paddles.
Nope, instead, I multitasked through my cardiac event, as many moms are prone to doing. I heart-attacked and made my twins breakfast and got ready for work and checked in with my workplace, got the twins on the bus on time and thennnnn … went to the ER.
(This was no small feat, in case you are wondering. But it was intentional. I remember whispering to my prince of a husband "I cannot be having a heart attack, but whatever this is, I refuse to die in front of my girls.")
With all my devoted 17 years of Grey’s Anatomy watching (not to mention my 15 years as a studious E.R. fan), I expected on that sleepy Monday morning in 2017 that I’d be greeted by a competent group of medical folks who would express concern about a woman presenting with chest pain. I’d be wheeled into the room where they do the EKG and Dr. Teddy Altman would squeeze my forearm reassuringly and say something about having caught my heart problem “in time.”
What I did not expect, nor even imagine in my worst nightmare, was being misdiagnosed with “prediabetes syndrome.” And when I told the lady ER doctor, who did bare a very close resemblance to Dr. April Kepner, “My heart really hurts, it feels weird, like it can’t beat right” that lady ER doctor tapped my forearm as though we were in a sorority, chums, and said “hormonal shifts can make the heart feel fluttery.”
With my alarming symptoms dismissed by the doctor, I was discharged, about 90 minutes after coming in with chest pain. She gave me salad recipes and recommended that I work on "lowering" my BMI.
I read on my discharge papers that I had elevated cardiac enzymes and three EKG abnormalities.
Then I started fact-checking. And while I was going to save my anger for later in the book, let’s talk about the pink elephant in the room.
Namely, that gender bias in doctors is a rampant, contagious, heinous, wicked epidemic.
If a man walks into an ER and says he has chest pain, he will get the full cardiac workup and will likely be held for observation.
If a woman walks into an ER with chest pain, it is common for the attending physician to delay treatment to the woman while fishing around for a psychological reason for the chest pain.
Us gals are being killed off simply because we don’t have a penis. According to the JAMA, women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of a heart attack.
Seven times more likely to die just because we are women.
Back in my tired-and-naïve days, I scrounged my way to a cardiologist, forgiving (sort of) the ER doctor for her goof. Maybe she was tired. Maybe she had a drug problem, like that season when Amelia Shepperd really struggled with pain pill addiction. Maybe she had a job interview and just couldn’t remember the stuff she learned twenty years ago in med school. Maybe she’s one of the 17 people in the country who have never seen Grey’s Anatomy.
Regardless, I was taking my patient advocacy into my hands and going to a highly recommended cardiologist, who diagnosed me as being extra sensitive, like “a fainting goat.” (His words, not mine.)
And when he did find a heart blockage, did he retract his fainting goat diagnosis? Why, no he did not. Right there in the OR, after he’d threaded a wire through my wrist, hung a sharp right and plunged the wire into my heart, after all that, the recommended cardiologist insisted, tapping his temple, that my chest pain was all in my head.
(Later, I read in my medical record his notes that my “noncardiac chest pain” was likely due to anxiety.
WTF, dude?! WTFuckingF?)
(But wait, there's more! When I requested a copy of my medical records about one year after my 'noncardiac' chest pain ... again with the three EKG abnormalities ... the doctor added a note that said "In hindsight, patient chest pain likely caused by myocardial bridge." Oh, duuuuude.)
Perhaps he was married to the dark-haired ER doctor, as he insisted that my chest pain – either during exertion or at rest -- was easily explained by hormones and anxiety. "Menopause can really play some tricks with your mind."
You know what else plays tricks with my mind? Inept, chauvinistic, dismissive doctors who are so quick to deny basic medical care to a patient with ovaries.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Grab a cuppa, a cozy blanket, and curl up for a good, long read.
Because my heart journey, improbably, started with my nose.