Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, February 14, 2015

How did you spend your Friday the Thirteenth and Valentine's Day?

(rewritten for my radio show script Feb. 16)

I managed to find a unique way to combine both bad luck and the heart to mark this year's back-to-back Friday the 13th and Valentine's Day. Thursday night I had a mild heart attack. Friday, after everything was stable, they did an angiogram, which indicated that I have a congenitally enlarged coronary artery. Apparently a clot developed there and then got blocked from passing into a more normal artery. I've been on blood thinners since as soon as I was admitted, so am entirely out of danger. I didn’t need a stent or any surgery at all. I'll be taking medications and use one of those days-of-the-week medicine things now, so can officially feel old and decrepit with a minimum of actual problems associated with it. This was pretty much a best-case scenario for a heart attack. It was indeed scary, but after receiving excellent care at the hospital and now some follow-up appointments and 36 sessions of cardiac rehab, I’ll be entirely in the clear.

Usually at this point in a radio program, I’d talk about whether or not birds have heart attacks, and get into lots of cases. I’ll just say, yes they do—both from clots and from other causes, especially associated with their high blood pressure. Fighting males rarely but occasionally have keeled over dead from their heightened blood pressure actually blowing out a hole in the heart or a coronary artery. 

But I’m going to break my normal pattern this time because I’m extremely lucky that I realized I was having a heart attack. Symptoms in women are way different from those we usually hear about. I did not feel ANY pain or tightness or heaviness in my chest when I decided I was probably having a heart attack. I just suddenly, after getting ready for bed about 10 pm, had a fuzzy, weird feeling in my chest, a sensation that was running up my neck to my jaw. The sensation itself made me feel a little panicky, so when I climbed into bed, I kept sitting up and thinking I just felt wrong.

The possibility of a heart attack was on my mental radar screen because in the past couple of months or so, I’ve had four or five dizzy spells that lasted only a few seconds. They felt weird and nothing like anything I've felt before, but I couldn't see making an appointment unless they got worse. Also, for two or three days before the heart attack, my face looked paler in the mirror to me. My father died early one morning when he was only 50 from a massive heart attack, and my aunt, his sister, died this summer after waking up, getting out of bed, and simply dropping dead. In my last photos of both of them, their faces seemed unusually pale.

I’m not particularly superstitious, but it did occur to me that, uh oh—if this was an actual heart attack, there was a pretty good chance I’d climb out of bed on Friday the 13th and keel over dead. And that made me think of the puppy I’m getting in 5 weeks—how much I want to be healthy to train and play with her, and how she deserves a healthy owner.

I still thought if this was a heart attack, I should be experiencing some actual pain, so I opened my iPad and googled heart attack symptoms. They all started with descriptions of massive chest pain or pressure (like that "elephant sitting on your chest" I'd read about) radiating down the left arm, but then got into more vague symptoms, and all specifically mentioned jaw pain, especially in women. I wasn’t having pain, but my neck and jaw as well as chest had that fuzzy, weird sensation.

So Russ ushered me to the hospital. The guy at the door admitting patients looked rather skeptical, but the moment he let me through, I was ushered away, with a whole team wiring me to an EKG machine and an IV and taking blood tests and I don't know what else.

 My EKG was slightly abnormal. The first blood test for a protein called Troponin that is released into the bloodstream after a heart attack was negative, but they were concerned about the EKG, and the next time they did the blood test, it was, indeed positive. Six hours later, it had risen even more. So the event was an actual heart attack, and it turns out that it was very lucky I went in before it became a massive one. Those strange symptoms women tend to show, which often do not involve pain, are too often not taken seriously until it is too late.

So there you have it. I guess I dodged a bullet. But really, if I had to have a heart attack, could the timing have been better than the weekend when Friday the 13th and Valentine’s Day collide?  

**I don't want to be answering everyone's questions about this ad infinitum. This was not an aortic stenosis, I have no problems with valves, and virtually no plaque buildup. And I do not need anyone's suggestions for or critiques of my treatment. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and thinking about my puppy.

**Additional update: I had to be hospitalized again due to a horrible reaction to Lipitor. Fortunately, my blood cholesterol levels are only marginally high and there was no evidence of any significant clogging of my arteries—just that genetic aneurism—so statins aren't really called for in my case anyway. This was way more debilitating than the heart attack itself, but I'm back on the mend. 

**One final point: Having a heart attack is terrifying. I am trying to make light of it, partly to reassure my family and friends that the probabilities of my keeling over dead haven't risen too dramatically above what they are for any reasonably-in-shape 63-year-old, and partly because that's the way I always cope with things. But just because I am trying to deal with it as best I can does not give anyone the right to make jokes about it, and especially not to say "I thought you had a sense of humor." This is a no brainer, and as far as friendships go, a deal breaker. 

Laura meets Pip!