Thursday June 12, 2014 was a day like no other in my 55 years on the planet. I had donned shorts, t-shirt and sneakers and headed to Planet Fitness (a.k.a. The Judgement Free Zone) where I had gone five or six days a week for my workouts, which I referred to as ‘playouts,’ to make them seem more fun. I completed my one hour round of cardio and weights, jumped into my Jeep and drove home to shower and prepare to see several clients in an outpatient drug and alcohol rehab where I had worked as a therapist for two years. On familiar roads, something unfamiliar and unexpected occurred.
Imagine someone grabbing your jaw and gripping tightly so that you couldn’t move it. Then sense torrential sweats, long after having cooled down post workout. Beat skipping heart palpitations, lightheadedness, nausea and searing heartburn pain followed. I knew immediately that I was having a heart attack. Call it oxygen deprivation, but I didn’t go straight to the hospital. I drove home, called to cancel with my clients and then had the thought that I was sweaty and needed to take a shower. Common sense kicked in…but only to a point. I said to myself, “What are you doing, woman? Get yourself to the hospital.” I didn’t call 911 as I should have. Instead, I got back in the car and drove myself to my local hospital which was about 10 minutes away. I stumbled into the emergency room and informed the woman behind the desk that I was having a heart attack. Within moments I was whisked to the cardiac cath lab where a stent was inserted via my wrist which was a blessing, since the other option was that it be threaded through the groin. A humorous moment preceded the surgery as the nurse who prepped me for it, told me, “You’re going to hate me, but I’m only going to shave you on one side (in case I did need to have the less pleasant procedure).” I asked her, “Can’t you do a landing strip?” She volleyed back, “You’re on your own for that when you get home.” That told me that I would indeed survive.
An hour later, I was greeted by the cardiologist who showed me what my fully occluded artery looked like (a broken tree branch) and how it appeared once the stent was present (as if the branch had popped back up). He cautioned me about my condition that had multiple causal factors. Family history (my mom died of Congestive Heart Failure), elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, as well the highly stressful lifestyle I admitted living. I had been working 12-14 hour days and sleeping perhaps 5 or 6 hours per night for likely two years. Both parents had died within a 2 ½ year period and I had suppressed my emotions since I had been the social worker who interacted with hospice, the minister who officiated at their funerals and my mother’s Power of Attorney and executor of her estate. The grieving daughter had no opportunity to mourn.
This experience had been preceded at the end of 2013 by shingles that showed up on the anniversary of my mother’s death, which was the day after Thanksgiving of 2010. No surprise that my body was telling me something that I ignored. Turns out I was not alone. Many women ignore the symptoms as I did. I erroneously believed that menopause was the cause of my sleeplessness, dizziness and arrhythmia.
As I lay in the hospital bed, I was bombarded by thoughts of, “What if I don’t bounce back? What if I am incapacitated? What if I have to rely on other people? Holy sh*t, I’m only 55.” Well -meaning family and friends told me that I had to take a few weeks off from work to recuperate. I went into panic mode, thinking that I couldn’t afford to miss work. My boss informed me that he would not allow me through the door and that my co-workers would hold down the fort and take care of my clients.
I found myself lying on the couch as I watched the ceiling fan spin from the peak of the living room ceiling. I wrote copious articles for various sites and publications as a cautionary ‘don’t let this happen to you,’ message. I had promised one of the nurses who had come in to care for me in the wee hours of the morning that once stabilized, I needed to go out and teach women about cardiac care. I have since kept my word and have spoken to several groups about this condition.
- Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined.
- Approximately 1 in 31 deaths of women is attributable to breast cancer, whereas 1 in 7.5 female deaths is attributable to coronary heart disease.
- Every minute, approximately one woman dies from heart disease.
- Only 1 in 5 American women believe that heart disease is her greatest health threat.
- An estimated 6.6 million women alive today in the U.S. have coronary heart disease.
- 90% of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease or stroke.
- Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease.
- The symptoms of heart disease can be different in women and men and are often misunderstood.
One step I have taken is to return to my athletic roots. I was a swimmer in my youth and into my early adulthood. Even though that has not been my chosen form of exercise of late, I do things that get my heart pumping such as 3-4 time a week gym workouts, walking on alternate days, dancing, riding my bike. I am training for a 5k in September called The Bubble Run. I have also joined a Facebook group called Ironheart Connect which was designed with athletes who have cardiac conditions in mind. The support has been invaluable.
Paradoxically, although I did not actually die; no ceasing of heart beat, I am prepared to die any day. I don’t fear it. I do fear incapacity and relying on others for my physical care.
Here are some of the lessons I have learned:
- Leaning on another doesn’t mean it will last forever or be burdensome.
- We never know when our last day will be.
- There are do-overs and whole life makeovers.
- I need not be Wonder Woman who exhibits ‘savior behavior,’ and instead I call myself The Bionic Woman who has what I think of as a bionic body part (the stent).
- I choose not to let the heart attack go to waste and am heeding the messages it came to deliver.
- With an open heart emotionally, I give my cardiac muscle the love that it needs to keep on ticking.
In celebration of my third cardiaversary, I am organizing a Free Hugs stroll on June 10th. If you are in the Philadelphia area, please join us. If not, hug someone wherever you are.