The Heart Attack That Wasn’t and What I Did Wrong ……

The #1 health concern with alcoholics is heart disease.  While I haven’t had a drink in over 9 years, I feel compelled to discuss a recent event.

Sunday night I was relaxing on the couch before bed with my feet elevated, enjoying my favorite TV show on DVR.  I had a great weekend, spent lots of time with my two favorite guys – lots of sunshine, convertible rides out of town …. lots of R&R.  Stress-free.

Quite suddenly I had a crushing pain in my chest.  It radiated into my upper back – left side.  Suddenly I felt powerfully nauseated.  I tried to take slow deep breaths to not puke because I thought that would make the pain worse, but breathing made it hurt worse.  I had a strange prickly-tickly sensation inside, like I was sweating from the outside in.  My face felt hot and flushed.

My instinct was to call an ambulance and I DID think “heart attack.”  My mind was frantically racing with heart attack symptoms.  One nagging thought was “pain in left arm or jaw.”  But a calm swept over me.  I didn’t have either of those symptoms.  I thought I remembered a good friend – a lifelong EMT – saying that if you change positions and the symptoms don’t go away then it may be a heart attack.  If you change positions and the symptoms DO ease, then it’s probably digestive/indigestion/heart burn.  I tried laying on my side.  I tried being on my hands and knees.  I tried laying on my other side.  Laying on my stomach.  Laying on my back.  Sitting up straight.  Standing.  Nothing worked.  Then it slowly ebbed.  I was okay.

I felt silly, reflecting on my instinct to call an ambulance. It went away, right?

After this I was exhausted and went to bed.  The following day, my heart felt strange ….  the heartbeat was not irregular, per se.  It simply felt like it was “overreacting.”  Walking slowly, as one does indoors, my heart would beat like I had been lightly jogging.  While it felt like  a “normal” heartbeat, I found this disconcerting.  I was also a little short of breath just walking around and sometimes when sitting idly.

A lady I sponsor in AA called and asked if I was going to the Monday night meeting. I told her no, adding that I wanted to “stay still.”  I told her why.  Oh – and she’s a career nurse.  She told me “What you described is a heart attack.”  I smiled nervously and shook my head.  Realizing she can’t hear me, I told her I thought I was okay.  “I made a doctor’s appointment?” I added feebly.

She talked up the ER, and she explained that the heart is a muscle and we have to take care of it, that delaying treatment after a heart attack can be BAD.  She said she would come over and check me.  Sitting on my couch, she lightly squeezed my wrist with her index finger and watched her watch.   She let me know that when I see my doctor they will want an EKG and that there probably is NOT one in the office and that they will probably send me to the ER via ambulance.  That was enough to persuade me.

They swiftly hooked me up to an EKG.  I hadn’t had time to sit in the waiting room.  Their prompt attention was impressive, but it also reinforced the fact that there was something to be feared.  They took blood.  They hooked me up to  a heart monitor.  They did chest x-rays.

Laying on that stretcher with the wires stuck to me and the beginnings of an IV drip impaling my arm gave me a lot to think about.  I felt lucky to be alive and thought about my boys – my son and my boyfriend. I reflected on how I should be taking better care of myself.  I have a lot to live for and would want them to get treatment immediately if something like this happened to them.  Not 24 hours later.   I thought about my smoking habit.  The irony that perhaps years of drinking was haunting me years later.

Everything was okay, thank GOD.  EKG said “normal” at the top.  Enzymes were within normal limits.  Chest X-ray looked good.  “I think I should tell you that you have emphysema,” the doctor chided.  “You really SHOULD quit smoking.” (He had warned me before the chest x-ray came back that he would tell me I had emphysema either way to get me to quit smoking …… it was just a continuation of his “joke.”)

At the end, the doctor asked if I had any questions. I referred him to my reluctance to call an ambulance and let him know that in the future I may be even more reluctant [remembering the outcome of this ER visit and feeling foolish at the end]. He let me know that if I ever have chest pains that cannot be explained I SHOULD come in – no matter what.

My problem with decision-making [about ANYTHING] has been the gray area.  I think we all know the symptoms of heart attack, but it’s important to bear in mind that some people do not have every symptom and there are plenty of times that the symptoms are not “classic.”

Rosie O’Donnell recently had a heart attack – and seemed to know it.  She took an aspirin and made a doctor’s appointment the following day.  (She really DID have a heart attack, by the way.)  They say taking an aspirin can help a person having a heart attack, that it can help thwart permanent damage ……. but it is NOT a substitute for IMMEDIATE medical care.  They say to call 911 FIRST and then ….. if you have aspirin, take one.

If a person really does have a heart attack then any delay in treatment can mean damage to that vital muscle that we so depend on to keep us alive.  One heart attack makes a person more vulnerable to subsequent heart attacks and perhaps even death.  That delay in treatment can mean increasing that vulnerability.

Now for the coincidence:   I happened upon Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack story  the morning following my ER visit Monday night.  There seemed to be a lot of parallels.  It was quite sobering.

We alcoholics tend to not take care of ourselves -particularly when we’re drinking.  We shrug things off and say, “It’ll work itself out.”  We do this with everything from relationships to financial problems to our health.  When we get sober, this improves but sometimes we still want to stay on that island and not deal with anything.  Denial can be comforting.  Ignorance is bliss, right?

Sober living is about doing the next right thing, and sometimes that is as simple as taking care of ourselves.

In following up with my doctor, she said that they would like to rule out a blood clot. I have Factor Five Leiden, making me more vulnerable to blood clots.  She did a blood test called D-dimer.  It came back within normal limits, but at .5 (if I recall?), I am at the very top of normal limits.  Now they will set up a CAT scan to see if I have a blood clot.

I’m very grateful to my sponsee for motivating me to go to the ER.  Even though it was NOT a heart attack – it might have been.  And she might have saved my life – or at least prolonged it.  I guess we’ll wait and see how this turns out.  In the meantime, I’m staying calm and accepting what ever HP has in store for me.

I also want to point out that this is typical of the AA network.  People care.  People don’t only care, they prove it with actions.  In my barroom days, friends comforted me by saying “this round’s on me” or “let’s do a shot.”  Talking to them about my feelings or issues would have been a buzz kill, motivating them to abandon me in lieu of someone more fun.  In AA there is always someone there to be with you and to comfort you.  There’s always someone who knows more about something than you do.  Thank God I can be teachable today.