Every once in a while, we go through something that we just have to call a “learning experience.” It’s not fun. We wouldn’t want to repeat it. But, we can decide to learn from it. So, disclaimer right up front: this post is not party related. Well, a little bit. I’ll get to that.
One morning a few months ago now, I packed up my fabric bunting orders, and then I sat down at my computer. Did some work, sent some emails, had a conference call. Totally normal day. The dog got outside off-leash, and I had to chase her a few houses down the street. Not so normal, but no biggie. I needed to jump in the shower and get ready for a meeting.
So I was busy, and not really paying attention to myself. But once I was sitting down for a while, I tuned in a little more. During the morning, I’d been feeling pain. And I realized that I was feeling more pain, in more places. Weird places, like my left arm, and down my spine. And I finally noticed that the chest pain I’d attributed to my asthma got worse after I used my rescue inhaler. I was super tired, and my head hurt, but again, not so unusual for a busy working mom.
But the left arm was really starting to bother me, and there was no reason for it to hurt. It’s not like I’d worked out hard the day before and it ached as a result. I’m a righty, and my left arm is purely decorative. The pain finally got my attention, in a “hey, aren’t women’s heart attack symptoms sometimes weird and mild and different from men’s?” kind of way. It got my attention because both my dad and his father dropped dead of heart attacks. It got my attention because I knew that women sometimes discounted their symptoms and wound up dying of a heart attack.
I googled “left arm pain women.” And what I read really got my attention.
Take Your Pain Seriously
According to myheartsisters.com, I had five of six symptoms that meant I could have a heart attack imminently. I asked my husband to drive me to the urgent care. (I can’t attest to the medical credentials of that site, but did find this post extremely helpful in deciding to seek care.)
In my plan, the urgent care would see me right away, they’d do an EKG which would be fine, and I’d head back home in time to get ready for my meeting.
That’s not what happened. The urgent care took me back immediately to a room that looked like they could operate in it. They hooked me up to the EKG, gave me an aspirin, nitroglycerin and oxygen, and they called the ambulance to take me to the emergency room. My EKG results looked fine, but that didn’t matter.
Your EKG Is Not the End-All, Be-All
Here’s what I didn’t understand at the time: an EKG only shows what your heart is doing at the moment the EKG is taken. It can’t show past damage or predict the future. For those reasons, the EKG is not enough to “clear you” of having a heart attack.
“So I’m not over-reacting?” I asked the doctor. “Absolutely not. And if you leave now on your own, it will be AMA — against medical advice. You’re going to go to the ER. They are going to do blood tests and other tests to see if you’ve already had a heart attack.”
Well, that hadn’t occurred to me. My heart attack might not be on the way — it might have already happened.
“They may keep you for eight hours, or send you home, or keep you overnight,” the doctor said.
In less time then it’s taken me to write the last few sentences, the ambulance crew was there.
Everyone and His Brother Is Going to See Your Boobs
You have to be hooked up to a whole lot of chest monitors. The doctors and nurses and techs and EMTs won’t care about your bare boobs, and you just have to close your eyes and think of England. It’s embarrassing but necessary. Once things calmed down in the ER, I had a gown, and a whole conversation with the doctor about my party buntings, his wife being a party planner, and the color of my new Kate Spade bag. (Wish that made the medical expense a business-related tax write-off!) My modesty was secondary to making sure my heart was being monitored.
Make Sure You Understand Your Care Plan
I have to say I got great care at the ER, and the main reason I feel that way is that everyone person, from the orderly to the X-ray tech to the nurse to the doctors, made sure I understood their plan for me and that I asked all my questions. If that is not your experience at the hospital, speak up. Ask every question you have, even if you have to ask your question repeatedly until you are comfortable with the answers. Tell them everything you’re feeling, even if you think it couldn’t possibly matter.
Of course, I am not a doctor, and please don’t read this as medical advice, but here’s what you may expect if you go the ER with symptoms of a heart attack.
- Heart monitor
- Chest x-ray
- Blood work
- More blood work
- More meds
- Echo stress test
- And a bunch of waiting to see if anything changes
The blood work was interesting because it introduced a new idea: it might not be a heart attack. It might be a pulmonary embolism instead. You don’t want blood clots in your lungs anymore than you want to have a heart attack, and I was glad to know that this threat I hadn’t even considered was being ruled out.
But it was the cardiac enzyme blood work, in part, that meant I’d stay overnight at the hospital. It has to be repeated every few hours to rule out a heart attack. Every time one of those tests came back clear, I was a step closer to safety.
By the next morning, I had an echo stress test, passed that, and was sent home knowing my heart was in great shape, but having no idea what produced my symptoms in the first place.
Texting Is Your Friend
If you have time to grab to these necessities on the way to the hospital, do. In my case, we hurried out the door too fast, and I was later texting lists to my husband.
- Cell phone charger
- Ear buds
- Prescriptions in original bottles
- Change of clothes (we’ve been married 20 years and he doesn’t know which drawer is my underwear drawer)
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Dry shampoo
- Facial wipes
- Kindle (and charger) or book
Texting is also awesome when you’re too tired to talk, but need to alert family or ask a neighbor to meet your kids at the bus stop.
Have a Hospital Buddy
From being with my father in the hospital during his final illness, I also am absolutely convinced that every hospital patient needs a personal advocate with them — especially overnight. It’s too hard to deal with all the info coming at you when you don’t feel well and it’s 2 a.m.
The hospital buddy should be ready to speak up for you and help you make decisions. With Don’s support, it was easier for me to say “no” to medicine for anxiety, a sleep aid, and something that might have lowered my low blood pressure even further.
When I had my heart attack symptoms, it didn’t seem crazy to me or to Don that I might be having a heart attack. That right there is a wake-up call. That points to a wee bit too much stress in my life.
So for the past several months, I’ve let a lot go. I haven’t been here on the blog much. I haven’t been house-working much (and it shows). I’ve given myself a pass from the mommy guilt over the stuff I’ve let go. I’ve asked for help more. I’ve gone to bed hours earlier. Because it is INSANE that the idea I might be having a heart attack sounds reasonable. I’m not going there again.
I hope that if you ever wonder if you’re having a heart attack, you’ll do two things:
- Take your symptoms seriously and get them checked out.
- When you’re better, make some changes so hopefully your heart attack never happens.