Updated: Mar 7, 2020
On this very day, March 6th 2017, three years ago, I had a heart attack.
I have not posted this or said it out loud to many, mostly because I was in utter shock that me, kale-munching yogini me, would have heart failure. And, sure, maybe a sense of shame, too. Also, the first trip to the ER resulted in a doctor missing the heart attack diagnosis entirely.
Okay, I'll admit, before my heart issues, I just assumed that people who had heart attacks had earned them.
You know, chubby guys, boozing, hard-charging, cigar-smoking dudes, men who eat steaks with reckless abandon and don't go to hot yoga, those are the people who have heart attacks. Think: John Candy, James Gandolfini, Jerry Garcia, Larry King, Elvis, Louis Armstrong.
Nonetheless, March 6th, 2017, I joined the heart attack club. Me! a nonsmoking, kale-munching, yoga-teaching, non-drinking, all-around zenny person. Heart. Attack. So t here I am, innocent as a dewy lamb. And then ... I woke at 4am, bolted upright, feeling a white-hot jolt to my heart, as though struck by lightning.
I woke at 5am, ditto, struck by lightning. I remember thinking “Dang, I’m glad I’m laying down. If I were standing, this woulda killed me.”
I woke at 6am, and the struck-by-lightning pain faded into a dull, wicked sense of being squeezed to death. King Kong had picked me up by the rib cage and was trying to crush me to death.
But who has time for medical emergencies? First thing first, I had two girls to get ready for school.
Oops. First thing first, email work. I believe I said, simply, that I was ‘unwell.’
The 14 stairs up from my office to the kitchen were insurmountable. The girls came and got me, one on each side, each cradling my elbow. “Mommy, what’s wrong?”
Well, I don’t rightly know. I focused on breakfast. The night before, us three Croisier gals had pre-mixed the dry ingredients for a lovely, gooey, chocolate coffee-mug cake. All I needed to do was gather the egg and oil, stir, microwave, voila! The perfect start to a Monday morning.
But the three feet over to the fridge -- and back -- was too far. In the before time, I was on a Seattle dragon boat team. In fact, my newbie team came in 2nd place our very first race. And now, damn, six feet is too far.
I grabbed two spendy for-A1Mommy-Only vegan breakfast bars and put them in front of the girls.
I caught James in the hallway.
“Something’s wrong. Maybe a heart attack? Probably not that. We need to go to the ER … but let’s put them on the bus first.”
Ever the planner, I had already run through the timing of things. In theory, we could drop the girls off at a neighbor’s house, but then there would be alarmed faces, and concern and questions. Also, they'd need breakfast. So what' the etiquette on that? "Hi, can you feed my girls gluten free and dairy free breakfast and put them on the bus?" I needed to just stay alive for 45 more minutes.
I’m vaguely remembering something about chewing aspirin during a heart attack? Or was it a stroke? Well, no harm in trying. I scan my medicine cabinet. I chew an aspirin. Nothing.
Maybe I should chew more aspirin? I make a modern medicine woman’s trail mix: two big aspirins, one more baby aspirin, one Tylenol, one ibuprofen. Nothing. Damn. My delicate digestive track is going to be mad. I toss in two papaya enzymes and two Tums as an apology.
Ever self-conscious, I decided against calling 9-1-1. Partially because I worked there and didn’t want to face workplace ribbing after I found out that I just had bad gas. And partially because it seemed like I would get to the ER quicker on my own.
Ever the mom, I did not want to alarm my girls with the sight of me being carted away by an ambulance, lights flashing, outcome unknown. [Hindsight: oh! I wish I had called 9-1-1. If nothing else, you skip the paperwork and go to the front of the line.]
My plan works. We arrive at the ER around 730 on that Monday morning.
It hurts to breathe. It definitely hurts to talk.
The nurse starts an EKG. If you’ve never had one before, I’ll tell you this: it is like painting. The set-up for the test takes about 17 times longer than the actual test. The nurse glued the 12 leads to my body, clipped the wires to the leads, turned on the machine, ba-da-blip, test is done.
The nurse has trouble getting the leads to stay on because I’m v. sweaty at this point, and not in a good-hot-yoga-class kind of sweat.
The doctor comes in. “Do you have pain radiating down your left arm?”
God no. But my entire lower jaw bone is on fire, if the doctor had offered to remove it from my face, permanently, I would have rejoiced and said yes.
“Are you dizzy?”
No. But I’m weak as a kitten. I try to explain that I could not walk down my 40-foot hallway without breaking into a sweat.
My heart hurts, I tell her. It feels like it can’t beat right. Is my EKG okay?
“Your EKG is perfectly normal. So, then, no pain radiating down your arm?”
Wow. I’m remembering something about hearing that women have different heart attack symptoms. Maybe she didn’t read the article. But, weird, huh? That a female doctor wouldn’t remember that.
I briefly toy with lying, and putting on a good show, clutching my arm. Oh, yes! Yes! Doctor, my arm hurts so bad.
But I’m a good Lutheran English major and I simply cannot lie.
I hear the doctor tell the nurse “No radiating arm pain, so this rules out a cardiac event.”
I want to scream, my heart hurts so much. I’m being squeezed, so I cannot breathe.
The nurse brings in a pill to take, potassium, which will make me feel better.
I ask if the pill is gluten free.
The nurse does some eyeball rolling. “Medicines are almost always gluten free.”
Umm. No. Damnit. It is so very hard being me right now.
I say that my gluten allergy causes seizures. The nurse might have rolled her eyes. She sighs heavily and is probably wondering why her Monday has to be so difficult.
Some time passes, probably a good 15, 20 minutes, me laying there, mystery pill in a cup, arm not hurting, heart in distress, lungs being squished, jaw a pain that surpasses ruptured ovarian cyst pain.
Doctor returns. “Are you feeling dizzy?”
Um. No. I feel like a theraband is wrapped around my rib cage.
Oh, good lord. I’m trapped in a giant tub of clear, goopy, gelatin, everything is taking my lifeforce from me. Why must I repeat things? No, a ther-ah-band.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what a theraband is.”
Good lord, now I’m alarmed. How can you go to medical school and not know what a theraband is? (For the uninitiated, a theraband is a giant rubber band, about 4-6 inches wide, that’s used in physical therapy to heal things like torn rotator cuffs and touchy elbow.)
I really wanted to say “King Kong is squeezing the fuck out of me and I’ll die within the hour if you don’t kill King Kong because he’s strong as fuck and I’m weak a kitten, I’m runt-of-the-litter weak.”
That’s what I wanted to say. But I thought “theraband” would be more succinct. Not panicked. Certainly not hysterical.
“It looks like your potassium is a little low, so that’s probably causing the heart to feel a little fluttery. And you BMI, at 30, is too high. That, combined with a blood glucose of 138, tells me that you are pre-diabetic.”
Okay, seriously? Ask again. My heart hurts, doctor. Would low potassium make my heart ache?
“Well, also, let’s seeee … you are 53, right? Menopause can really make the heart feel extra fluttery some time.” She smiles at me, a wincing kind of "Oops, I said menopause out loud, didn’t I?” kind of smile.
At what point did I ever say fluttery? Is it possible that she’s missing my symptoms? I’ll try a different approach. Why am I so weak, so short of breath?
“Again, with a BMI of 30, that’s what is causing your breathing trouble. Check in with your primary care doctor to get a plan in place to work on lowering your BMI. Trust me, once you lower your BMI, you’ll start to feel better.”
And with that, the white-coated, fat-shaming wicked wench whisked out of the room, likely in search of the next chubby woman to fat shame.
I asked the nurse what my blood glucose was.
“Well, let’s see… it was 138. When was the last time you ate?”
Ahh, yes, I did muck my way through an English muffin, partially because I knew that ER visits are never short and partially because my medicine-woman trail mix needed a cushion on the way down.
I look as confused as I feel.
The nurse leans in, pulling off the EKG leads. “You are not diabetic. 138 is a perfectly normal reading. Be sure to check in with your primary care doctor.”
She hands me my discharge papers, which include kale salad recipes. It is less than three hours since I checked in.
Thank god and ganesh for my primary care physician, because she took one look at my discharge papers, pointed out that my EKG was abnormal three times over, and got me a referral to an amazing cardiologist.
And that was just the very beginning of my heart attack adventure.