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The Heart Attack and What I've Learned

On June 10, 2005 I suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency angioplasty surgery. As heart attacks go, it was minor, affecting only a small area of the heart, but any heart attack feels major to the one having it and to his or her family.

Prior Indicators

I’m not the sort of person you’d expect to have heart trouble. I’m relatively young (51), have low blood pressure, am not overweight, don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol or caffeine, am not diabetic, have a pretty healthy diet, and get a moderate amount of exercise.

For the last six months I did notice that when I got stressed, I felt some pressure in my chest. After the surgery, the doctor said that my heart had been building up small collateral arteries to feed one area of my heart which indicates that the effect of reduced blood flow from a larger vessel had been going on for a period of months at least.

Trials Not Unexpected

A few weeks before my heart attack I chose a new passage of scripture from the Bible to memorize and meditate on. It was James 1, the first few verses:
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”

I’m not sure why I chose this passage. I remember thinking, “Hmmm. I wonder what trial I’m going to have to help me really learn the lessons from these verses!”

First Sign of Trouble

About a week before the heart attack, I got off work at 8 a.m. after working a 9 hour night shift and went with my husband Charlie to the gym to exercise. I had just finished upper body muscle building exercises and was throwing a ball back and forth with Charlie. It was one of those big, inflatable exercise balls. (We do it to help build bone density.)

After about 12 minutes of this, I suddenly felt pressure in my chest, not a feeling of fullness, but a hollow feeling that was pressure at the same time. I stopped and sat down on the ball.

“Are you all right?” asked Charlie.

“Yes . . . I think so.”

I waited, but the pressure didn’t go away. I laid down on the floor and turned different ways to see if it would help, but it didn’t.

“Do you want me to call 911?” he asked.

“No . . .”

I noted the time and waited some more. I’d always heard that if chest pain stays longer than two minutes, you need to get help.

Suddenly the pain got worse. Initially I would have rated it a 3 on the pain scale from 1 to 10. Now it shot up to 5 or 6 and went through to my back and down my left arm. That was enough for me. “Go ahead. Call an ambulance.” I said.

Charlie called 911 and then went upstairs to alert the staff that an ambulance was coming. By the time he got back, the pain was gone. I felt really silly. “Can we call and tell them not to come?” I asked.

The Ambulance

The paramedics arrived with their gear and began to check me out. “I feel fine now,” I said. “I don’t really think I need to go into the hospital.”

They weren’t convinced. “Whenever you have chest pain, you should get it checked out.”

I looked at Charlie hoping he would rescue me, but he just shook his head. “I’d feel better if you were checked out.”

What else could I do? I climbed onto the gurney and let them slide me into the back of the ambulance. They attached leads to monitor my heart and started an IV.
“This is going to cost a pretty penny!” was all I could think.

The Hospital

I asked to go to the hospital where I work, but when the ambulance people called, the ER staff told them they were on divert, so instead we went to another local hospital.

The people there were so nice and personable and the doctor was a gentle, fatherly sort of man. He ordered a chest X-ray and EKG, both of which were normal.

I still felt really silly for even being there. I was sitting up and acting totally normal and had no chest pain at all. When my pastor showed up to see me I felt even sillier, but it was nice to talk to him and he asked me an all important question, “How’s your soul doing? This is a good time to take stock of your life and ask yourself whether the spiritual affairs of the heart are in order.”

I was able to answer positively. “God and I are tracking well together. Not that everything’s perfect in my spiritual life, but I’m ready if He should call me home.”

The Doctor’s Verdict

Finally, after what seemed like hours, the doctor talked to me and said that the tests had been normal and that he felt it was probably a musculo-skeletal pain related incident. He did not, however, order a blood test, which at the time I didn’t realize is standard protocol for chest pain cases.

I was discharged, went to work that night, and the next morning I went to see my chiropractor. I suspected that maybe I’d gotten a rib “out” while exercising, and he confirmed that I did indeed have a rib that needed adjustment.
So. It was all musculo-skeletal. What a waste of time and money!

The Pain Returns

About a week later I began to have chest pain again. It was Thursday evening, and I had just awakened from sleeping during the day after my last night shift of the week.
Charlie said dinner was ready, but I felt too punky to sit down and eat much. I rested some more, but continued to have a low level of pain throughout the evening. Charlie went to bed, but since it was my night off from working at the hospital, I stayed up and tried to work on Scrapper’s Guide business. It was hard to concentrate, though, because of the pain.

About 1:00 a.m. I decided to go to the hospital—not to be admitted, mind you, just to be close to a hospital in case it was a heart attack. I was pretty sure it wasn’t heart related and planned to see my chiropractor again in the morning, but if it did turn out to be my heart, at least I would be at the hospital.

I took several scrapbooking magazines with me to pass the time and made myself comfortable in the CAT scan IV prep room in the X-ray department where I work.
It was hard to concentrate on the magazines. A couple hours went by, but the pain never got any better. In fact, it went up a notch. I began to dream up scenarios of how I would call a code if I really had a heart attack, and would they find me easily in this out of the way room, etc. etc.

“This is silly!” I thought. “I should just check myself into the Emergency!”

I picked up the phone and started to dial the oh-so-familiar ER number but chickened out and hung up. I fretted some more. Finally I picked up the receiver and dialed the number.

“This is Linda from X-ray.”

“Hi Linda! (pause) What are you doing here tonight?!”

I told her about the chest pain and she had one of the ER nurses come talk to me. The nurse was very helpful in talking through the situation and left it up to me what to do. I decided to take an anti-inflammatory pill and see what would happen.
Sure enough, within the hour I felt fine. I drove home and went about my normal activities until morning, and then I went to the chiropractor again to see about the rib that had been out. He said it really wasn’t bad in that area anymore.

The Real Thing

Because I work nights, I sleep during the day. I went to bed around noon, but this time, I had trouble going to sleep. The pain returned and another pain pill wasn’t helping at all.

Restless, I got out of bed, and that’s when the pain soared to a 7 or 8. I was panting when I called Charlie. “I’ve got to do something. I can’t take this!”

“Do you want me to call an ambulance?”

“No, no, just drive me to the hospital!”

We got in the car and poor Charlie drove while I writhed and gasped in the passenger seat. It was similar to birth labor pains that are so strong they take your breath away. If I didn’t breathe rhythmically in and out, the pain felt out of control.

Every once in awhile I’d hear “Shoot!” from Charlie as we had to stop for yet another traffic signal. Charlie used his cell phone to call Emergency and tell them we were coming.

The Emergency Room

The young gal who met me at the door as I was wheeled in tried to get my name down, but she kept spelling it wrong. I had to repeat each letter several times. “I’m sorry,” she said after she finally got it right. “They told me it was Snodgrass.”

It certainly was nice to have friends at the hospital. “I saved you a room,” said one of the nurses as she wheeled me into Room Number 2, a room I’ve gone to hundreds of times with my portable X-ray machine to take chest X-rays of other patients.

One of my favorite ER nurses took care of me as I began the standard chest pain protocol. EKG, chest X-ray, and this time, blood work. The EKG and chest X-ray came back normal, and we waited for the lab results.

The pain had settled down to a 3 or 4 on the Pain Scale, so when I needed to use the rest room they let me walk the short distance with Charlie. Just that simple exertion set me off, and I could feel the pain coming back in force.

I made it back to Room 2 and began the same writhing and heavy breathing routine I’d done in the car on the way in. The doctor called for a stat EKG and sure enough, it was abnormal. The lab results also came back and indicated elevated cardiac enzymes.

The Cardiologist

Fortunately, the cardiologist on call was in house. He came to see me and said, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re having a heart attack.”

He reeled off some orders and things got really busy for awhile as I was hooked up to four IV blood thinners. It was late enough on a Friday afternoon that the angio team had already left, so they had to be called back in, driving through Friday rush hour traffic.

For a heart catheterization procedure the patient lies on a table covered by a sterile drape. The cardiologist makes a small incision in the groin, punctures the femoral artery, and inserts a flexible metal guide wire up through the aorta and into the vessels feeding the heart. Then he threads a catheter over the guide wire and injects contrast (liquid that shows up like a dye when X-rayed) which lets them visualize the arteries.

If they find an area where the artery is blocked, they can blow up a balloon that squishes the plaque against the artery wall. They also like to place a stent (mesh tube) to keep the area from closing up again.

My blockage was in a very small artery that was farther from the main arteries. That was good in one way because it meant that less of the heart muscle was affected. The negative part was that the artery was too small for a stent, so they had to be content with the balloon “angioplasty” or repair.

Much of the time I could watch what was happening on the monitor screen. It was pretty strange to see my own heart pumping and the vessels surrounding it. Other times I was in too much pain to watch anything. Blowing up the balloon caused a temporary blockage of the artery which made me grit my teeth in pain as though I were having another heart attack all over again.

Harder than the Surgery

After the surgery I was taken to a room in the Intensive Care Unit, a place where I also go routinely to take X-rays of patients when I’m working. Thank God the pain was gone! But I soon found that lying still for hours and hours is harder than enduring the relatively short surgery.

Because of the puncture in my femoral artery, I couldn’t bend at the hip for hours. I could roll slightly to one side, but that didn’t keep my back muscles from getting sore and tired. It wasn’t until mid afternoon of the following day that I got to bend and sit up slightly, and then finally get up instead of using a bed pan.

What I’ve Learned

It’s better to be too cautious than too lax when you have chest pain.

Take the ambulance.

Make sure the ER doctor orders the full protocol for chest pain. I still wonder if my artery could have been repaired before the heart attack if the first doctor had ordered a simple blood test.

Women’s symptoms are often different than men’s. According to my ICU nurse, 50% of women with heart attacks have other symptoms instead of chest pain.

It pays to be heart healthy as a lifestyle to avoid a heart attack in the first place to the best of your ability. There were two areas where I could have made a difference in the health of my heart. One was to work fewer hours to reduce my stress level, and the other was to exercise aerobically at least five times a week to increase the “good cholesterol,” because even though my cholesterol level was low, the ratio of good versus bad cholesterol wasn’t great.

Family history of heart attack is a key factor, and it weighs more heavily than some of the other factors. My father had quadruple bypass surgery in his early 70’s. My dad’s brother died of a massive heart attack in his sixties, and another uncle had a heart attack at age 58. If you have a family history of heart trouble, you should be even more conscientious about keeping your heart healthy.

There are some marvelous new drugs and procedures that can give you another chance at life. I’m taking four medications right now. Some I may have to take for life.

Once you have a heart attack, life, I’m assured, can be just as good, but it will never be quite the same. I will always take medication and carry nitroglycerin pills with me.
My doctor commented that if you’re over forty it’s a good idea to take an aspirin every day to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. You might want to ask your doctor about it.

When you have a heart attack you find out just how wonderful your friends and family are. I was overwhelmed with love and prayers and acts of kindness by people I know and people I’ve never even met.

Not everyone gets a second chance. As I mentioned in the newsletter, one subscriber wrote that her father (age 55) and her brother (age 35) both died of a heart attack. We need to live this life as though any day could be our last. If God sees fit to call me home, I want to be ready.

If you aren’t sure that you’re ready for eternity and want to know what the Bible says about how to be ready, click here.

What’s Next?

I’m home now, resting and taking it easy. The doctor says I must be off work for 6 to 8 weeks. Wow! What a way to get a paid summer vacation! Thankfully, I have enough “Extended Illness Hours” accumulated at work that I won’t go without a paycheck during the entire time.

I’ll also be taking a Cardiac Rehab course to help me retrain myself to a new lifestyle of a balanced schedule, heart healthy food, and proper exercise.

Most of all, I’m fully awake and ready to smell those proverbial roses!

Thanks for listening,

Linda

Here's a February 2008 update to my story.

 

 

 

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