Friday, February 12, 2016

Heart Month Reminder

Laura meets Pip!
Five days before my heart attack, I met Pip, when she was five weeks old. I bet the anticipation of bringing this perfect little puppy home was one of the factors that contributed to my recovery. 

Exactly one year ago, on February 12, 2015, I had a heart attack. I don’t want to make it sound dramatic—thanks to excellent care in the hospital then and pretty regular attendance at cardiac rehab, I’ve made a great recovery and am probably healthier now than I was before the heart attack. But the timing of my heart attack was both funny—it was the very weekend that Friday the 13th and Valentine’s Day collided—and apt, being right in the heart of February, which is American Heart Month. Women’s heart attack symptoms can be very different from those of men, and mine were exceptionally mild considering I was having an acute myocardial infarction, so I think it’s important to let people know what mine was like.

The day had been a low-key, normal one. At bedtime, I washed up, brushed my teeth, got in my jammies, and climbed into bed to read just like any other day. And then, all of a sudden, I became aware of my jaw. Not because of any pain at all—I simply got a vague sensation that made me aware of my jawbone, which I’d never particularly thought of before. The sensation was of the same quality as my foot falling asleep, but far less intense and prickly. The only way I can describe it is as a vague fuzzy feeling. And I suddenly realized I was feeling that same vague sensation in my upper chest.

This sensation was of far lower magnitude than anything I’ve ever called my doctor about. It honestly didn’t occur to me that anything was wrong. I turned the light out to go to sleep, but the moment I reclined, I started feeling anxious. I’m normally a pretty laid-back person, so the anxiety was my biggest actual warning that something was wrong. I did what people are wont to do—I opened my iPad and googled "jaw sensations," and immediately saw that jaw pain is related to heart attacks. I wasn’t feeling any pain at all, but all of a sudden I started piecing together a couple of other weird things that I’d observed in the past few weeks. Several times when I’d climbed out of bed in the morning and was reaching down for my slippers, I’d felt dizzy for just a moment. And for the past few days, my face had seemed rather gray—a coloring I noticed in my dad the last time I saw him before he died of a heart attack.

So I told Russ maybe we should go to the ER because there was a chance I was having a heart attack. It didn’t occur to either of us to call an ambulance—we were pretty sure that they’d soon be sending us home anyway.

I’ve waited as long as four hours in the ER in some situations in the past, but heart attacks are a top priority in triage, so I’d barely walked in before they had me on a table, hooked up to all kinds of things. My blood pressure was extremely high for me, but no higher than my mother-in-law’s is on a normal day—165 over something like 100. Even as the nurse taking it was assuring me that it wasn't really high enough for a heart attack and was probably elevated because I was so anxious, the EKG was telling a different story. They instantly hooked me up to an IV with heparin, an anticoagulant, and a nurse put a nitroglycerin tablet under my tongue. I reacted instantly to that—I slumped down, the room spinning.

A protein called troponin is released into the bloodstream when heart muscle cells die. The sample they sent to the lab right when I arrived at the hospital was negative. Yet even before we had laboratory proof that I was having a heart attack, the heparin was resolving the cause, which turned out to be a clot in an aneurism on the right coronary artery. My troponin level was high after 6 hours, and spiked even higher after 12, but then it started dropping. The quick response minimized the damage to the heart, making me a heart attack survivor.

Had I not gone into the hospital when I was having that vague fuzzy feeling, the outcome would not have been so good, and it’s disturbingly likely that I’d be dead right now rather than having fun with my puppy and making plans for birding adventures. So my advice to any woman with a sudden weird sensation in the jaw or chest—get to the ER. The best that can happen is they send you home with a clean bill of health. The worst is that they'll treat you for it. Either way, you'll live to bird another day.

Pip's first day with me!
Five weeks after my heart attack, getting my new puppy!