On Sunday April 17, 2016, I awoke to severe pain in my chest and my upper arms. I was in Chicago for my cousin’s wedding, without Jim and the boys. I was sharing a suite with my sister, Steffani, and her husband, Paul, and sleeping on a pullout sofa. At first, I thought I had slept in a wrong position on my arms, causing them to hurt, and perhaps I also had heart burn from eating different food. After trying to stretch, taking some antacid and showering, I actually felt worse. I started to worry something was really wrong.
At this point Steffani got up. I told her what was going on and she started looking things up on her phone. She asked me if I wanted her to call someone. I knew that if we called than I wouldn’t be getting on the plane later that afternoon to come home, however deep down I knew something was wrong. So, I had Steff call. My parents were also in Chicago, so she called them too.
It is was very surreal experience to be carried out of a hotel by the fire department on a gurney. My mom and Steff rode with me in the ambulance to Northwestern Hospital. In the ambulance I had an irregular EKG. Once at the hospital they took a blood sample, ran more EKGs, did a chest X-ray and monitored my vitals. The first round of blood work showed elevated troponin levels, which is an enzyme released soon after a heart attack. It continues to rise in your blood, so a second blood test showing a higher amount of troponin confirms a heart attack. A few hours later, they confirmed this was happening to me.
I will never forget the moment the doctor came into the room and said “you are having a heart attack.” My dad was standing next to my bed. Paul had been just sitting in the chair the doctor sat down in to talk to us. My sister was standing in the hall talking to Jim on the phone. Those words were things I never thought I would hear and especially at the age of 41.
I was admitted to the hospital and the next day had a stent surgically placed in my Ramos artery that was 100% blocked. A small part at the bottom of my heart will never work correctly again. I also have several other partial blockages ranging from 50% to 20%.
Since my mom and sister could stay with me until things were settled, we decided to have Jim stay at home with the boys. I was released from Northwestern four days later and flew back to Seattle two days after my release. I left the hospital with a handful of new medications to take each day, one that made me bruise severely and another that made me very tired. The only mark I have on the outside is a tiny scar on my right wrist from the angioplasty. Although I have recovered physically and now am only on two medications, I have many scars that you can’t see.
As you can expect, this moment changed my life forever. I now have to check the heart disease box on every health form I complete. I have to be careful about what pain medicine I take, because of bleeding risks. Any amount of chest pain makes me stop and think for a minute to determine if it is similar or different than that day. Since I had no warning the first time, I will always live with the thought that it could happen again. Then there is the anxiety that came with all of this.
I have experienced some mild anxiety before, but it was nothing like this. I have had moments of paralyzing fear that I can’t work through or find a logical way out of. Getting on an airplane for the first time to fly again without the boys was excruciating. All I could think was, could this happen again. The only way for me to control my times of anxiety is to simplify life and try to be prepared for the times when I think it will occur.
It took me nine months to feel physically normal again. I spent much of that summer very fatigued and tired. By being so tired all the time, I was able to remove all of the things in my life that weren’t bringing me joy. I made a conscious decision to simplify life and find the things I loved. I don’t feel like I have to be on every committee or a leader for every group. I chose to do what was important to do and eliminated what I was doing out of obligation.
My heart attack changed my life, but in some of the best ways possible. I found that we have an amazing village who will drop everything to help. I have “strongly persuaded” other women to go get their hearts checked after hearing my story, and some are much healthier for it. My boys love our healthier diet and truly understand why some foods are really bad for you. I view life through a different lens, one that is more self-aware.
Friday February 2nd is Go Red for Women day to raise awareness of heart disease in women. Please wear red to show your support for any woman in your life who has been affected by heart disease. Or, if for no other reason, do it for me.