Let me start off this post by saying that I’m still having a hard time processing what happened this week. At 41 years old, you don’t really anticipate writing a blog like this. And for those of you who don’t know me, I’m not a huge person who sits on the couch all day eating pork cracklins. I’m certainly no poster child for the physically fit, but as of a month ago I put into place a better diet for myself and my family based on eating “real” food only and have started walking every day. A friend of mine and I had even gotten up to 5.5 miles each time over hilly terrain. And then came Tuesday.
I’ve been asked a lot what it felt like, what my symptoms were, so let me start there. It was around 2 p.m. I had finished lunch (a southwest grilled chicken salad) about 30 minutes earlier and was watching New Girl on Netflix trying to get myself geared up for a walk before carpool. I started feeling a burning in my chest- right in the middle. It reminded me of heartburn. I take an anti-reflux medication every day so it was a little odd, but not out of the question. As a matter of fact, it had occurred on Sunday as well. Although, on Sunday I was wearing a new bra and thought it might have been too small. After letting the girls free, I felt better so that was that. Until the burning sensation on Tuesday became a little more intense. It got my attention but I still didn’t think anything of it. I was able to walk around, wasn’t short of breath, wasn’t sweaty or clammy or dizzy. The only thing was, it didn’t get better when I laid down (like heartburn usually would), it wasn’t easing after drinking water, and I kind of felt the same burning in my left shoulder for a second and then later in my neck but then it went away. I did have an upset stomach, but wasn’t nauseous in the least. And I felt the need to cough every now and then but so what? All these things I could easily ignore or explain away. And tried to, even though in the back of my mind I was wondering if maybe it was something else. I even thought of calling 911 for a second until I pictured the ambulance screaming down the street and thought about having to make arrangements for someone to pick my kids up at school. For something I was sure was nothing, it didn’t seem like a good idea to me and quickly dismissed it. With my chest still a bit tight, I first picked up my son at his elementary school and then drove to the middle school to retrieve my daughter and her friend. Somewhere in between I decided to text my husband that my chest was tight again and I didn’t feel great. I don’t know why I did that. I think I was looking for validation that it was nothing. Or, I was looking for someone else to make the call so I could blame an overprotective spouse on the embarrassing trip to the ER that produced nothing. Whatever the cause, his response made it clear to me that he wasn’t going to play around. He immediately called me with questions he had obviously pulled up on his computer after most likely searching something like “am I having a heart attack?”. My answers were mostly “no”. Not liking the fact that it had happened just two days earlier too, he left work anyway. By the time he got home, I was in the kitchen opening the mail. Business as usual, right?
Wrong. At the Urgent Care they took me right away. And as I described my “symptoms” to the doctor and answered her questions, her face became more and more serious. Side note: This doctor should NEVER play poker. She said she was going to send me to a hospital for some blood tests they couldn’t do there because she couldn’t rule out that I had had a cardiac event. But before we left, she had the nurse do an EKG. Approximately 30 seconds after the nurse left the room with the EKG printout the doctor came back into the room swiftly and informed us that she didn’t like the results and that my ride to the ER was going to be infinitely faster than my minivan could take me. Shit got real. Fast.
EMS arrived and were cordial and pleasant. They hooked me up to their EKG machine and compared it to the printout from a few minutes before. Pleasantries were dropped. I heard one of them saying something to my husband about the situation “deteriorating rapidly” while the other one was strapping me onto the stretcher. I remember him stopping, looking me in the eye and telling me, “We’re taking you to the ER, and then you’re going to have a cardiac catheterization today.” I looked at my husband who was being hugged by the nurse. Okaaaayyyy…
This began the totally surreal part of my journey. As we left the parking lot, I saw my husband driving behind us briefly before we pulled away from him, sirens blaring. They had given me baby aspirin at the Urgent Care and I don’t know if that’s why, but I was actually starting to feel better. The tightness was easing and I was baffled as to why everyone seemed to be so panicked. Even as the EMT looked at me and said “Mrs. Sheldon, you are having a heart attack” I was thinking, “Cool. I wonder how long this is going to take. I need to go home and get dinner started.” And that is the scariest part to me. If my husband had not insisted, I would have been cooking dinner, still in denial and (according to the EMT) in big trouble later.
No wonder heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. You always hear it’s different for us. There isn’t going to be that big moment where you clutch your chest and scream for Elizabeth that you’re coming! You most likely will be able to find a reasonable explanation for why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling and at least 4 reasons why you don’t have time to get it checked out. Listen to your bodies! Even though my symptoms weren’t severe, they WERE a little different than anything I had felt before. Being consistently at a 0-1 discomfort level on the 0-10 pain scale as you’re going through a heart attack seems completely RIDICULOUS and doesn’t make any sense to me. But that’s what happened.
Having your blood pressure drop in half suddenly is the weirdest sensation. The EMT had given me nitroglycerin and almost immediately after it had dissolved under my tongue, I felt on the verge of passing out and looked at my feet to see my toes turning blue. I was being whisked out of the ambulance and into the waiting arms of 12-15 ER professionals. One of my nurses later likened it to a pit stop in NASCAR. That was a perfect description. To me, the scene was chaotic, but everybody knew what their job was and performed it effortlessly. Moving me to the hospital gurney, asking me again what happened, taking my family history, removing my clothes, sticking the EKG leads on me, explaining what was going on. Through it all, the cardiologist remarked at how comfortable I seemed. I felt fine, better even. If it wasn’t for them making such a fuss over me I would have been perfect!
My husband arrived, signed some paperwork and I was taken to the cath lab. I felt comforted by the fact that it all seemed routine to the doctors and nurses I encountered there. They were so good about telling me what was going on and what they were doing. I remembered my manners and made sure to say “Thank you.” after every step they informed me of. The cardiologist bantered easily with me and after hearing that I made cupcakes for a living, gushed “That is so CUTE!”. I laughed and then he assured me that it wasn’t the cupcakes that caused this and that I shouldn’t stop baking. Of course I promised to bring all of them treats.
After seeing 100% blockage in one branch of an artery (my “french fry vein” as later named by my sister-in-law), they placed 2 stents and that was it. Crisis averted and blood flow restored. The doctor said my arteries were all nice and “juicy” and with my age and health, there was no explanation for why I would have had a heart attack. I was labeled an anomaly. Believe me, I’ve never ever wanted to be a storyline for the TV show, House. And it’s not comforting to have the experts shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know. Bad genes.”.
After the stents the biggest obstacle was putting pressure on the femoral artery in my groin which they used as the highway to travel to my heart. It being a major artery, they didn’t want me to leak any more than necessary. A plastic device was put into place over the site with an adjustable dome to apply the right amount of pressure to stop the bleeding. I was delivered to CICU and into the capable hands of nurse Kelly. As she was checking me over she noted how thoughtful it was of me to make the shaving process easy for the ER. It was super nice of her to comment on my careful grooming. And it was my first clue that I could maybe start to relax and my smiling and joking around wouldn’t be out of place.
Assisting Kelly was the charge nurse, Rose. Rose was much taller and older than Kelly and wore her hair in a thick grey and blonde Katniss style braid over one shoulder. She was a no-nonsense kind of woman. She oversaw Kelly’s removal of my plastic device (called a FemoStop). However, pressure still needed to be applied to the site until my blood clotted and the artery was sealed. That meant pushing on my groin… HARD for several minutes. Unfortunately Kelly had not eaten her Wheaties that morning so I was oozing much more than they wanted. Insert: Rose. I thought I was uncomfortable when Kelly was pressing on me. Rose kicked it up a notch. As I clutched the sheet on my bed and bit my lip to keep from yelling obscenities, Rose looked down at me and said, “Good thing I used to be a mud wrestler.”. While that did not surprise me in the LEAST, I still asked her if that was true. “Yes, honey. In Myrtle Beach! That’s how I paid my way through nursing school. Little bikini and everything! Chest pushed together to get the boys hot!” I instantly loved Rose. And as she stood there putting all her weight on my crotch we also learned that she makes her own wine- muscadine and scuppernog. And that she had bought her shirt at Cracker Barrel for 90% off- $1.40. That last bit made me feel a little better about the blood that had spurted out of my artery and onto her abdomen.
When Rose and Kelly finally got me situated, I settled in to try to sleep since it was 11:30 and had been quite a day. Before turning off the light Kelly went over to the calendar on the wall at the end of my bed and ripped off the page to reveal Wednesday, September 18th. It was then I got a little emotional. It made me stop and think. What if things had gone wrong and I wasn’t able to see the next day? Never before had that been such a real possibility. I thought about what I had done that day and asked myself if it was my last day on Earth, would it have been a good one? My husband’s grandmother used to say, “Don’t get caught somewhere you wouldn’t want Jesus to find you.” Would Jesus have been proud of how I conducted myself that day? I had made my kids breakfast, packed their lunches and did the carpool routine. I took our neighbor across the street to middle school because she had missed her bus. I had an eye appointment and picked out new glasses and had seen a friend. Insignificant things but I was okay with that. I hadn’t hurt anybody that I know of and hopefully made a couple of people smile.
Over the next couple of days I had wonderful care in the hands of nurses like James and Amy. I had lots of family and friends visit and admonish me for scaring the shit out of them. And I developed one hell of a bruise in my pelvic region. It was as if Rose (or maybe The Hulk) had punched me in the vagina. My skin was deep purple from one hip to the middle. And every time someone new looked at it they always had the same reaction… *sucking in air* “Ooooooooh. You poor thing.” Maybe. But I consider it a small price to pay.
I was able to go home on Thursday. Walking into the house I encountered my life interrupted. The linens I had folded still sat in the laundry basket by the chair. The remote was where I left it after turning off New Girl. And there was the mail on the counter- some opened, some still sealed. I am so thankful that it was just that, a brief interruption. And eternally grateful for too many reasons to list here. But most of all, for my husband. If it wasn’t for him, I would have stayed home. When the EMT led me to the stretcher, he called me Cinderella and asked me to hop on board my yellow carriage. If Tuesday was some sort of fairy tale, my husband is my knight in shining armor. He claims he was guided. Of that I have no doubt, Prayers are powerful things and there are a few people upstairs who I know interceded for me. But he is a blessing to me and never fails to look out for me and put me and my happiness first. I feel a moment coming on where everyone will just start telling us to get a room but since my lady parts look like they were worked on by a rookie tattoo artist with an epic case of the shakes, I’ll just say thanks, Ace. I’ll demonstrate my gratitude properly in 2 weeks. Also, your superhero is showing.
So here I sit with metal in my heart to keep it healthy, 4 new prescriptions, and an order from my cardiologist to go to cardiac rehab with the other 80 year olds. I’ve been told my experience has been a wake up call for others. It is shocking when a 41 year old has a heart attack (that still doesn’t sound right). And I hope that it made some people pay attention. But I hope that next week, next month it isn’t forgotten and those who feel they need to make a change truly do. I have been deeply touched by the outpouring of love since this happened. And I want you to know I love and care about all of you and wish nothing but good health and well being for all of us. Cent’anni!
And now I leave you with some visual aids: