According to one of the cardiologists, I had a “big” heart attack on Friday. It actually began Thursday evening with discomfort behind the sternum, from stress I thought from financial concerns in retirement and because my wife was ill. Took aspirin and meds for my arthritis and went to bed. Awoke at 4:30 Friday morning with the same discomfort and knew that was unusual but went back to sleep for a while, always the best way to escape. Inclined as most are when it comes to doctors and hospital, I put off doing anything, aware of the discomfort and now some pain on the back of my left bicep—something felt plenty of times from arthritic pain in that shoulder. For short periods of time, the discomfort and bicep pain were joined by slight pain along the jawline and all three were with me until early afternoon Friday.
My father died over forty years ago of a heart attack at the age of 58, and I had experienced sympathetic chest pains for months after the funeral. Despite being profoundly scared and knowing from that experience the symptoms of a failing heart, I was still surprised I so willingly drove myself to the hospital. The pain was hardly severe, not at all like the pain radiating across my father’s back that had made him sick to his stomach. What I was thinking in going to the hospital was not being in annoying discomfort for the weekend. I had books to read and writing to be done.
If you ever want to immediately get admitted to the emergency room, do as I did. Tell them, “I know this may sound dramatic, but I need to see if I’m having a heart attack.” From the moment of uttering those words until I was on the gurney in an operating room, naked except for a gown until one of the men put a warmed blanket on me, in that span of an early quick EKG and a doctor asking if I knew I was in atrial fibrillation and had high blood pressure (no to the first, never ever had the second), from the moment of being on a gurney amid a gathering heart team and racing down a hall, from that first utterance about checking to see if I was having a heart attack to having a line installed from groin to heart along mysterious pathways and three stents installed in an artery with 99% blockage, in that time, maybe, maybe, maybe far less than one hour had raced by.
I was never in a great deal of pain, feeling only flushed warmth during the procedure. There was some pain from two IVs, some slight pain from the shaved pubic start of the pathway to the heart. The endless blood gathering always hurt and bruised, but the most pain came from countless sticky contact pads for always awkward and tangled lifelines connected to them. Despite shaving various hairy areas, the worst pain was the removal of two hand-sized sticky pads stuck to chest and all the hairs upon it in case I needed some shock therapy other than to the head. After just one was yanked off I was ready to confess all the bad things I had ever done.
I believe there is always a value to serious illness. After my daughter’s almost deadly battle with encephalitis, it was learning not to sweat the countless and ultimately meaningless small stuff that makes up so much of life. Her illness also brought an appreciation of living in the moment. True of all serious illness, I guess. But I learned something entirely different from having a heart attack.
Dreading it despite knowing it is mostly an infinitesimal part of living, I have always been afraid of the actual act of dying since I was old enough to understand the process. Somehow, lying there on the table before snaking a line up to my heart and installing three stents to save my life, despite knowing I could go into a full-flown attack and die, I felt no great fear, and part of that may have been the speed of the process from when I first spoke to the lady at the ER window. It was a feeling that one of the shoes had dropped, that finally the end process had become visible. Not that I wanted it or welcomed it, but it was a dance with the actual end game that binds all humans most strongly to each other.
I am not sure what the lack of fear during that dance with mortality means ultimately. Maybe I’ll be a better person. Wife and children would have welcomed that early on. If it means I’ll appreciate even more the time I have left, that will be grand. I will enjoy my family and watching my granddaughters grow into beautifully brilliant young women. So far though other fears are creeping in, no doubt to balance my earlier lack of fear when I was having the heart attack, small daily concerns now: the blood thinner that has created problems already; no leafy greens in the diet because they cancel out another medicine; and being told not to miss taking another drug because I now have foreign bodies in my artery and the body loves to clot around anything not its own. Perhaps another lesson for me from my illness: sometimes you do have to sweat the small stuff.
I’m just glad I’m still in the classroom.