“You’re having a heart attack!” my doctor said, and my response was…”You’re kidding, right? You’ve got to be kidding?” I must have repeated that phrase a hundred times in the next week as my whole life turned upside down!
I was 50 years old, and had two silent heart attacks in a brief period of time. I had no idea, I felt nothing that I considered an imminent threat. That was 16 years ago, and it took me right out of my life as I knew it!
Looking back, I missed or ignored a lot of incidents/symptoms that should have sent me running to my doctor. About a month before my doctor told me I was having a heart attack, I had several unexplainable experiences. Except, I was diabetic, and I chalked the episodes up to low blood sugar, never checking to see if that was true. Twice during that month before, I was doing my weekly grocery shopping and found I couldn’t get all the way around the store. I felt dizzy, nauseated, and out of breath–like I was going to faint. Once I was at the register checking out, and I had to ask the check-out person to call my husband to come get me (we lived five minutes away) because I felt so sick. She called for me while I sat down. (before cell phones) He came and took me home where I had something to eat (low blood sugar?) and took a nap. When I awoke, I was feeling better. A couple of weeks later, it happened again at the same grocery store, only this time, I left my basket half-way around the store, and walked out to the car and sat until I felt like I could drive home. Then it happened again in a fast food restaurant where I had stopped for lunch. I got so weak feeling, i had to give the counter person a note with my phone number asking them to call Max to come get me. At work, I couldn’t seem to regulate my temperature–I was always so hot I couldn’t stand it, but I thought I must be entering menopause. I had these coughing spells, with no sign of a cold or anything. I’d cough so hard and so long, I’d have to leave therapy groups and even individual sessions, very disruptive to the process! In hind sight, yes, i was an idiot not to go to the doctor. But I was only 50, a professional psychotherapist and an active volunteer. With one daughter in college, and one a junior in high school, I was too young to be seriously ill. (Denial, Denial, Denial)
But I was worried enough to talk to the nurse at work about it. She scared me with tales of people having heart attacks while driving and killing themselves and other people. My mother, a diabetic also, had her first heart attack at age 50, duh, that should have been a clue! I had always thought my life was so much less stressful than hers, I’d never thought it would happen to me!
On the way home from work that evening, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to pull into an urgent care center close to my house. We lived in a very small town. The doctor checked me over and gave me an EKG, which surprised me. then he looked into my eyes, and said, “I’m calling an ambulance, I think you’re having a heart attack.”
Shock hardly describes my reaction, and I was full of rationalizations, denial, and bargaining! “Can’t I just go home and pack a bag, and get my husband to carry me to the hospital? It’s just five minutes away, I’ll be fine I’m sure.” When he said no, he’d call my husband to meet me at the hospital, I said again, “You’ve got to be kidding!” LOL, some people are so hard-headed, I never thought I was!
We went to the hospital and they did all kinds of tests then a heart catheterization, my first of 15 to come! My doctor, a cardiologist called in, explained that, depending upon what they found when they did the cath, they wanted me to give them permission to place stents in my heart, or to do a bypass. “You’ve got to be kidding.” I was very erudite! But I gave permission.
After the cath, they said there was nothing they could do for me, that I had advanced coronary artery disease, and that they were calling a helicopter to life flight me to a large teaching hospital, at Duke University, about 3 hours away! I know you are sick of hearing about my stupidity, normally I’m not like that I swear, but here came another, “You’re kidding , you’ve got to be kidding!” Did I really think that? No, I was just totally incredulous!
I arrived at Duke about 4am I remember. A team of doctors, nurses, and technicians surrounded me! No one in my family was even there yet, I was scared. I could feel my heart fluttering, I had never noticed that before, and they took me right into the cardiac cath lab.
This story would be and might be, a book in itself one day. I surely can’t tell you all of it right here. I was in and out of the hospital constantly for the next six months. I was diagnosed with stage four coronary artery disease, inoperable, my LAD was 99% blocked, my coronary arteries were “withered” I was told, due to my diabetes, and they said I needed a transplant to live more than five years! Oh, and by the way, you can’t go back to work, not now anyway, maybe not ever.
Shock and depression set in! I wanted to die, I didn’t want to be a burden to my husband and asked him for a divorce! He refused to leave me. I felt guilty that my daughters were so upset, one left college her freshman year to come home and help care for me. One changed her wedding plans. We had to sell our lovely house, our home, because we’d lost half our income. We decided to move back nearer to Duke. What an upheaval.
How is it that I am here 16 years later? I did not have a transplant for many reasons, I did have some experimental, open heart surgery that researchers later determined was probably not helpful. I take like 15 prescription drugs a day, to slow my heart rate, to keep my platelets from sticking together to form a clot, to lower my blood pressure, to lower my cholesterol, for the diabetes, for my thyroid, yada, yada, yada. They think the medicinal regimen has saved my life. I think they are right, but I also felt the prayers of the many, many people and groups who lifted me up, I know it is a large part of the reason I am still here. I’m not sure just why I am still here, I thought I’d found my path as a therapist, but now my genealogical research and my relatively new writing have given me new directions. The depression lifted, with medicine and with the support of family and friends, I lifted my head and looked around, and started a “new normal”–very unlike my old life, but a good life in many, many ways. As I roll around my neighborhood, often with a grandchild perched on the arm of my power wheelchair, sometimes singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” at the top of our lungs, I am thankful for all the many, many, blessings in my life.
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