Lessons Learned From a Heart Attack

If you have symptoms like mine, don’t shrug it off.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

My heart attack did everything it could to warn me, short of standing up, waving its arms and giving a stadium whistle.

Looking back, with that oh-so-clear 20/20 hindsight, I can see that I had been having symptoms for a long time. Then about six months ago, things really kicked into high gear.

I had no idea that this was my heart, trying to warn me. I just thought… well… truth told, I don’t know what, or if, I thought.

That oh-so-clear 20/20 hindsight looks back and sees me, at the beginning of this journey, going “ugh” or something similar when I got hit with a passing symptom, and then immediately forgetting about it as if it hadn’t happened. My thinking brain didn’t pay attention to the early warning symptoms.

I even had a dream in which a friend of mine who died a few years ago came to me and tried to warn me. I know. That’s a bit touchy-feely for most people. But it was so real. I believed it, and I took it seriously.

I joined Weight Watchers and started working out at a gym. I pushed myself as hard as I could in those workouts. Ironically, that was when the symptoms started getting mean.

I wore a Polar heart monitor, complete with chest strap, while I worked out. Instead of using it to keep my heart rate within a safe range, I used it to track how many calories I was burning.

I learned pretty quickly that if I kept the calorie burn high enough I could eat quite a bit more than the diet allowed and still lose a pound a week. That was what I wanted, to burn those calories, so I could eat more and still lose weight, so I poured it to those workouts.

The monitor gave me a readout that tracked my heart like an EKG. When I began having sudden bouts of nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, breathlessness and feeling like I had to lie down right then or pass out, the monitor revealed that my heart rate was spiking up to way over 200 beats per minute. Those episodes could knock me flat, so that I felt sick and couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. Then, my heart started spiking when I wasn’t exercising, for no reason.

I also had nagging pains in my jaw and chest, but they weren’t all that bad. They were ignorable.

Now, a smart woman would have gone to the doc. I have friends who told me I needed to go to the doc. But I’ve enjoyed medical care these past two years just about as much as I can stand. I’d rather eat dirt that expose myself to more hospital time.

I decided — even though I knew better — to believe that these symptoms were just a reaction to being overweight and out of shape. Instead of backing off, I doubled down on the exercise, took a day off when I got laid out by one of those sudden flutters, and kept on keeping on. I guess my heart got tired of being ignored, because after a couple of months of this, it did something that nobody could ignore.

I’m giving you all the gory details because I want you to know what these things feel like. I’m hoping you won’t be as foolish as I was. It turns out I was lucky. But I could easily have died.

My husband and I were at Mass. I felt fine. Then, just after the deacon finished reading the Gospel, my jaw lit up with pain like someone had flipped a pain switch. When I say pain, I don’t mean a subtle ache. It hurt. It felt like my entire jaw was broken all the way around. After a minute, pain in my left center chest started up, which almost immediately ran straight through to my back. Again, it hurt. This was not ignore-it, shrug-it-off-pain.

As the nausea clicked in and my skin got slick with sweat, I continued to sit there in the pew. I knew something was wrong, and I had an idea what it was. But I wanted to stay and take Communion. I told myself to just hang on and take Communion.

But the pain clamped down in my chest like a vise, and I realized that I didn’t have that kind of time. I had to leave and I had to do it right then.

I got up. My husband was sitting beside me, next to the aisle. He looked at me, confused, and said, “Are you okay?”

“No.” I answered, and pushed past him.

I was concentrating so hard on putting one foot in front of the other to get out of the church and to the car, that I didn’t realize he was walking beside me until he said, “What’s wrong?”

I had trouble talking, walking and breathing all three at once, but I gasped out that my chest hurt.

He got me to the car and drove immediately to the hospital, which was only a few blocks from the church. The pain kept grinding into me, I thought I was going to throw up, and I was perspiring like I was in a sauna.

As odd as this sounds, I wasn’t scared. But I pretty well knew I was into something serious.

We got to the hospital. They took me right in, got me undressed and wired me up to all kinds of monitors.

And then the pain stopped.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped.

There sat Rebecca, wearing a hospital gown, surrounded by docs, her husband in the corner looking burnt alive, all wired up like a Christmas tree, with no pain except for a kind of achy heaviness.

Oh great, I thought. Now I get the idiot patient of the week award.

I assumed that as soon as I told them that the pain had stopped, they’d disconnect the wires, give me back my clothes, say “That’ll $3000 please,” and send me home. I was already thinking about the steak I was going to order in the restaurant I’d decided my husband and I should go to after we cleared this joint.

But nobody but me seemed to think that blowing out of there for a night on the town was a particularly good plan. The docs explained about how they really, really wanted me to stay, and talked a lot about blood tests and this test and that test.

I tried to bargain with them; offering to come back to give blood for the tests, even if it meant coming back several times during the night, and then showing up the next morning for the other tests. I just wanted to have a nice evening and sleep in my own bed. But they kept talking, insisting I stay.

It’s amazing how persistent docs can be once they get you in their hospital. Nobody told me I had to stay; they were more considerate of my emotions and kind spoken than any docs I’ve ever dealt with. But they did tell me that people who left after coming in like I did often came back dead in a few hours.



I stayed, and I underwent every test you could imagine, as the docs tried to get a handle on what was going on with me. After all that, I went home with a boatload of meds and instructions to do nothing, just rest and not test my heart for the next few weeks. Needless to say, I now have a new set of docs I see on a regular basis.

It has been surprisingly difficult to get specific information and direct answers about my condition from my doctors. They just get all fuzzy and won’t answer questions when I ask. What they have told me is that one of my coronary arteries is all kinked up, and it’s gone twitchy over the cancer stuff and is going into spasms.

I learned, by reading a letter from one doc to another that I probably wasn’t supposed to see, that the artery that’s causing the trouble is called the “Circumflex Artery.” The spot where it’s kinked is right at the top of it.

I also know that I don’t have blockages in my coronary arteries. But I do have “mild” disease in the place where that artery kinks. But no one will tell me — and I have asked — what, exactly, “mild” means.

I evidently had classic everything of the left atrium of my heart suffering a loss of the blood supply it needs to keep working. I’ve learned from reading about it on my own that the outcome of that is usually sudden death. It’s over 95 percent fatal.

That’s important for you to know because if you have symptoms like mine you should not waste time. Get to a hospital.

I’m lucky. Or at least that’s the story.

But I don’t think luck had anything to do with it. I got warned, warned, and then warned again. I even had a friend come back from the dead to warn me.

Then, I got the big, can’t-ignore-it warning of having that artery come so close to totally shutting down and killing me that it sent me into pain that would not be ignored — and that happened when I was a few blocks from a hospital.

I’ve spent most of the last couple of months feeling really lousy. I’ve battled these symptoms over and over, including nausea and lightheadedness whenever I stand for too long.

I also experienced the added symptom of my left arm hurting and my hand going numb. That only happened once, but it was part of pretty miserable experience overall.

Now, the symptoms have finally begun to back off. The big turning point came when I just decided to give in to this thing and not fight it. I stopped trying to do anything and let myself rest. When I began to baby it, it began to settle down.

Whatever. It is finally getting better.

I’ve begun what will be several months of cardiac rehab. That is a world away from the let’s-see-how-many-calories-I-can-burn craziness I was doing before.

They monitor me carefully and lead me gently into exercise. They also are asking me to make changes in lifestyle, and I’m all in for it.

Between this and breast cancer, it’s been a hard couple of years. I will write in another post about the spiritual side of this experience.

For now, all I want to do is bring you up to speed with what’s been happening with me. My primary purpose in writing this is to tell you that if you have symptoms like mine, don’t ignore them.

God gave me a lot of time and many warnings. Not everyone gets so many opportunities to be stupid and still live.

I have one message for you with this post. If you have symptoms like mine, don’t shrug it off. Go immediately to the hospital.