As busy students at AU, many of us are managing incredibly complex schedules that may include family, work and community activities in addition to our coursework. We may have heavy responsibilities and health issues or disabilities that contribute to a high level of stress. I’m a prime example of a full-time student who maintains an almost super-human load of responsibility. Graduate studies, while proving to be immensely satisfying, have added significantly to that workload. Throughout the last year, I’ve become far more conscious of the need to slow down and sort out my priorities. Voice readers may be familiar with the many events in my life that keep me constantly running, and I’ve written about the factors that have contributed to my recognizing the importance of taking time for myself and my family.
Since the beginning of last year I’ve made conscious efforts to put my health and my family first, to enjoy my grandson, to reduce stress and to maintain a healthier balance. I thought I had made some essential changes to my philosophy, but it is much harder to implement an improved balance than it seems. Of necessity, I’m still working three jobs while in school full-time, and other stressors and worries seem to be constantly ready to overwhelm me. As much as I try to stop worrying and take things easier, I rarely succeed. There is just so much to do, so much I want to accomplish, so many new things that keep coming up, so many demands on me and my time.
Sometimes we need a good scare. One week before Christmas I had mine.
There was no advance warning that particular night, nothing that should have contributed to what happened. In retrospect I realized, however, that the cumulative stress I had been under during the previous six weeks was exceptionally heavy, even for me. So it really should not have come as a surprise.
It was the perfect description of a relaxing, quiet evening at home. My daughter, her friend, and I were watching a documentary on BSE, a fire was burning brightly in the fireplace, and I was knitting a scarf (multitasking as usual). No assignments were pending, my tree was up, my gifts were wrapped, and I was planning on enjoying a rare evening off. I had made myself a tuna sandwich a bit earlier and taken my regular prescription medication. Now I was relaxing with a cup of tea and a glass of ice water on the side. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
Suddenly I started to feel dizzy and nauseated. My hands became sweaty, cold and clammy, and I couldn’t breath. I struggled to finish my row of knitting, but my fingers were becoming stiff and swollen, my palms so wet I could barely hold on to the needle. What was happening to me? Although my thoughts were becoming disjointed, I tried to rationalize what was happing. An allergic reaction to the fish? Some previously-unknown side effect or reaction to my prescription medication? My furnace had not been working properly lately, perhaps the fire was causing a build up of carbon monoxide?
I tried to focus, taking sips from my glass of water, but the room began to spin slowly and I could feel myself losing control and becoming unable to breathe. I struggled to my feet and made my way to the door. Perhaps fresh air would clear my head. I hung on to the door jamb and leaned out into the chilly December night, desperately trying to suck air into my lungs, hoping this horrible, dizzy feeling would pass and I would be able to breathe again.
No success. The weird, sick feeling intensified. Fearful that I would pass out and tumble down my front steps, I closed my front door and weaved through the house, hanging on to the walls, to make my way to my bedroom to lie down. By this time I was starting to become quite frightened. There was something very wrong with me, and the symptoms were looking suspiciously like a heart attack. I lay down, feeling sick, clammy and disoriented. A heaviness started to settle into my chest, weighing me down. I struggled to lift my head but I could not fight off the heavy pain in my upper body. I couldn’t feel my extremities and a strange feeling of depersonalization took over. My daughter had stepped outside with her friend and I heard her come in. I called to her weakly, praying she would be able to hear me. Puzzled, she came into the room, asking me what was going on. I tried to explain, but I was having trouble forming a coherent sentence. My breathing became shallow and more difficult, the heaviness in my chest increased, and my heart suddenly started to race. It was a sensation I had never felt before. It was not possible that a heart could beat that fast without exploding. I began to panic, terrified, and finally managed to get the words out to my daughter – “I think I’m having a heart attack!”
My daughter offered to drive me to the hospital, but I hesitated, hoping it would not be necessary. Even though I was certain I was having a heart attack, I was still in denial (I later discovered that denial is even listed as a symptom on the Heart & Stroke Foundation website). This simply could not be happening, it had to be something else – an allergic reaction to the fish or the medication or the smoke from the fire. But it sure seemed like a heart attack. I knew the signs, and I had read that women often experienced non-traditional symptoms. I’d had angina attacks on occasion during the past few years. I knew I was not in the greatest physical shape and likely at high risk due to my excessive stress levels. And as the minutes passed, the symptoms intensified. Yet both of us were still in denial. As frightened as I was, I kept minimizing the seriousness of what was happening, sure that if I relaxed and managed to focus, it would pass. If I could just get control of my thinking, if I could calm down, I could make it go away. I struggled to drag my scattered thoughts into a coherent whole, telling myself to calm down, breathe, regain control. My daughter checked my pulse (even though my heart was racing, my pulse was steady) then called one of my other daughters for advice and gave me the phone. I tried to explain what was going on but I was becoming increasingly incoherent, unable to breath, unable to control my fingers to hold the telephone. “I think I have to go to the hospital,” I finally gasped. My daughter again suggested she drive me to emergency, unwilling to burden me with the cost of an ambulance, both of us still not quite believing this could be that serious. But as my heart raced, I felt my ability to maintain any semblance of control slipping. By now I was certain. “No… you have to call 911” I struggled to get the words out, “I’m dying, I’m not going to make it.”
This seemed to be the catalyst, and as my daughter dialed 911, I went into full blown panic. Tears streamed down my face as I begged her to hurry. We had hesitated too long, and now it was going to be too late. All through it she stayed so amazingly calm. She would tell me afterwards that she was certain on some level that I was OK, that all my vital signs seemed normal, and this helped her to stay calm. I thought she was just doing it to try to keep me calm. The 911 operator, of course, had a million questions, and both of us started to lose patience. Every moment seemed like an hour, and I was sure they would not arrive in time. I know that 911 operators are trained to ask questions and take their time in getting accurate information, and even though I was able to process this thought, I was certain that every question, every small delay, was bringing me closer to death. “Please, please, make them hurry!” I was sobbing by now, my daughter had her arms around me, and her tears mingled with mine as I begged her to not let me die. I told her how much I loved her and asked her to please tell her sisters and my grandson that I loved them too. The room was hazy, everything was distant, the pressure on my chest pressing me down. I could feel every cell in my body being extinguished, growing weaker and weaker. Even as I fought for control, to hold on, I knew I was losing the battle. The sensation that life was slipping away intensified.
As I drew what I thought would be my last few breaths I asked my daughter to forgive me for not being the best mother I could have been. She held me close and we cried together. I thought of my beloved children, my sweet little grandson, and the new baby I would never see. I so desperately wanted to stay alive, but I was consumed with the certainty that death was inevitable. I leaned close to my daughter, my face wet with tears, feeling the last moments of life ebbing away. “So this is what it feels like to die” I thought, as an eerie tranquility began to settle in.
Panicked, unwilling to release me from her embrace, my daughter kept yelling, trying to get her friend’s attention so she would open the door for the EMTs. Throughout this whole episode, her friend had remained in the other room, watching TV, completely unaware of the drama unfolding down the hall – shocked when a fire truck and ambulance roared down the street and stopped at our door!
Suddenly there was the sound of voices outside my room. My daughter released her embrace and moved to the foot of the bed to make way for two young men from the fire department. As they took control of the situation I felt a glimmer of hope – perhaps they had made it in time?
Moments later the EMTs arrived and in the confusion and crush of people in my room that followed I just gave myself over to these trained professionals. They kept telling me to calm down and explain what was happening. I thought I was calm and tried to say so, but I was still having trouble formulating a coherent sentence. Their steady stream of questions and orders was vaguely irritating, but I attempted to answer them through my confusion. I figured that if they were asking and I was able to answer I would somehow be able to stay alive.
They seemed very matter-of-fact and their calm professionalism had the intended effect of easing my panic. As the minutes passed I started to believe their reassurances that I was OK, that I was not going to die, that everything would be fine. By the time they had me hooked up to heart monitors and an IV in the ambulance, some of the symptoms had subsided; but I was still dizzy, cold and clammy, and the feeling of depersonalization and the weight on my chest had not lessened. “We don’t want to scare you,” said one of the young EMT’s, “but there are some abnormalities showing up on the heart monitor.” They stabilized me with baby aspirin and nitroglycerin and prepared to transport me to hospital emergency.
I spent the rest of the night at the hospital, undergoing tests and waiting for results. Two of my daughters stayed with me, making periodic calls to the others to provide status reports. My oldest had a picture of my grandson with her, and she gently placed it on my chest as I lay in the hospital bed. Her tender act of concern touched me deeply, bringing tears to my eyes, and his sweet face added to my inspiration and desire to ensure I was alright. Only a few hours previously, I had been so certain that I would never see him again. Never before had I felt such a powerful sense of appreciation for the many good things I have in life, and for life itself.
After several hours the chest pressure had subsided and I was feeling markedly better. A blood test taken within a certain number of hours after a heart attack can provide information to confirm potential damage and whether an attack has actually occurred. The doctor advised that I would have to remain until all these tests came back and suggested that my daughters go home to get some rest. I lay on that uncomfortable narrow hospital bed in emergency, drifting in and out of a troubled sleep. Finally, at about 7 AM, the last of the results came back, and after doing final checks, the doctor said I could go home – it seemed that my heart was fine, with no signs of heart attack damage.
As I stood in the emergency room doorway in the chilly darkness of pre-dawn, waiting for my daughter to come pick me up, I thought about the terrible night I had survived. It had been the most terrifying experience I had ever endured in my life. To feel that close to death – once again I felt tears come to my eyes as I remembered how it felt, to be so sure I would die in my daughter’s arms and never again see the rest of my beloved family. I was alive. I was alive, and a sense of pure elation washed over me. I felt incredibly lucky.
But an important question still remained. What exactly had happened? Where would I go from here? What about the potential for another such attack?
Next week: Piecing the puzzle together