Facing the possibility of one's own death is a daunting task, but someone has to do it... right? Didn't think as a 50 yr. old I would be doing exactly that, but let me share with you the last two weeks of my life. I might add that in addition to feeling incredibly lucky, I also was in the care of some very capable hands during this journey.
It all started on Sunday, September 9, 2012, experiencing some unusual symptoms in my throat, neck and in my arms. The episodes, what I like to call them, occurred about four times that
Sunday and two more times the next day. They were
intense enough to suggest that something was going on and warranted a visit to the doctor. It needed to be
checked out and on September 11, I saw my primary physician. Just
one more reason that this day will live in infamy.
As I explained to the doctor, the predominant feeling was one of a lump in the back of my throat, the kind you get when you hold back the ugly cry. That tension spread around my neck, to my chest and across and down my arms. All these sensations naturally increased my sensitivities and with it, my anxieties, but I kept the overwhelming urge to give in to my anxiety, under control and passed through it okay.
The nurse did a preliminary EKG and the doctor informed me that there was no evidence of a heart attack, but there were definitely some abnormalities showing up; slight ones, but worthy of further investigation. I will be eternally grateful that he picked up on that, otherwise things could have ended up a lot different. So, thanks, Dr. Dewitt in McPherson, I've got big love for you and I know my husband is also extremely glad for your expertise.
My next stop would be to a cardiologist and the appointment was quickly arranged. He also ordered a chest x-ray and blood work be done; we complied that day. The x-ray came back and everything looked normal, the blood work showed slight elevation in the bad cholesterol and too low in the good cholesterol. The thing that probably kicked my anxieties in an uproar were the TSH (Thyroid numbers) levels; they were higher than they've been in a while. I immediately got back on those supplements that have helped me in the past, along with adrenal support supplements to weather this obviously stress-inducing situation. I noticed a big difference in my mental/emotional well-being in the days following.
What didn't change was that I was still feeling intense symptoms when there didn't seem to be a reason for them. Over the course of the week, they did diminish somewhat and there were a couple of days I didn't have any symptoms. The noticeable and dramatic thing was all physical exertion caused me to be completely out of breath and left me with a feeling of weakness; something I've never experienced before. Going up one flight of stairs should not do that to an otherwise healthy individual; that had me worried.
September 18, the cardiologist felt that it was best that we have a stress test done that day to determine what the problem was and what was causing the symptoms. He stated outright that he couldn't be sure what was going on based on the preliminary tests, but that I was definitely in a higher risk category (very prominent heart disease in my father's family, overweight, under a lot of stress and having symptoms). These factors all indicated a more in-depth look as to what is going on with my body.
I have to say the experience of doing the stress test and the accompanying echo-cardiogram was a fascinating one. They sure do make the screen light up with wonderful, vibrant colors; naturally leaving one to think that everything is going to be okay. I did eight minutes of uphill walking that left me breathing so deep that the back of my throat was on fire. Luckily, I did not go into full cardiac arrest; even though it did feel like I was. I did recover quickly, but it was still quite exhausting. They stayed with me for a while to make sure that I was okay and then I was told to go home and make a follow up appointment.
The next appointment was to be two weeks later and I looked forward to understanding what was going on. The cardiologist contacted me to move the appointment up to September 25. Initially, I thought that was just because the receptionist had scheduled it out too far; he had said that he wanted to see me in a week, so I felt like this was the problem. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't just a little worried. I asked my husband to accompany me to this visit on the off-chance that it was something serious. He complied and I'm so grateful that he did.
The visit started off all right, my husband and I debating science and religion in the office before the doctor got there, something that is always satisfying. It wasn't long before the cardiologist came in to tell us the results of the stress test. What I loved about how he went about his speech, even though it was tough to get through what he had to tell me, is that he was very direct, telling me the reality of the situation. More likely than not, I had blockages in my heart that would need to be dealt with. The tests indicated that they were present, but the only way to confirm how much or how bad they were would be through a cardiac catheterization or heart cath.
During the explanation of why it was necessary, he also talked about the statistics of what could go wrong. That is what brought up the immediate tears and life-flashing-before-your-eyes mindset. I was scared of leaving my kids and my husband to fend for themselves without me; I was the one who was supposed to always be there for them. If I died, their new reality was going to be a difficult one because I know the depth of our relationships. Change is hard, but change involving loved ones is even harder.
The fact that he also very strongly suggested that we get it set up for the next morning made it less welcome news. Something about urgency and doctors just heightens that experience 'oh so much.' After a little bit of discussion, my husband and I both agreed that it would be best to get this checked out immediately. So, it came to be that I was scheduled to be in the hospital at 7AM, September 26th.The procedure was to begin at 9AM.
What originally started out with a comment of "Oh, great, we can go to Starbucks after the visit since we are in Hutchinson." turned into a rather emotional day. The first phone call I made once we got home was to my father who has experienced an incredible cardiac history. Having survived heart attacks, strokes, a pacemaker and many other medical situations, I felt he would be my go-to guy for a real understanding of what to expect from here on out.
The rest of the day was spent preparing for the possibility of a really bad outcome. Tears were a staple of the afternoon and the long conversations that I had with the people in my life that needed to be contacted didn't seem to lessen them much; in fact, they brought on more tears. At one point, my husband had to leave out of necessity to attend to other things to prepare for the next day, but also just because he needed some alone time to figure out how to handle this emotionally. When he got back we eventually came to the conclusion that we needed to start seriously not being too serious about this subject or we would drive ourselves crazy. We really did not know what was facing us yet and to be emotionally drained going forward was not the best thing either. So, we were resolved to prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.
Telling my kids about what was going to happen next was a pretty hard thing to do. We waited until the boys were both done with work to inform them of how the next day was going to play out. My husband and I both expected that it would be hard for them to accept; their shock and silence told me they weren't able to handle all the emotions coming at them. My oldest was having a hard time with the jokes that my husband and I made, but I explained "It's either laugh or cry and I for one would rather laugh." After a little independent conversation with each of them, I had hoped that they would be okay. Their hugs were comforting even if we still really didn't know what the news would be tomorrow.
The doctor had told us that if things were really bad, coronary by-pass surgery was a possibility. That is the one thing that terrified me the most because anything could go wrong during open-heart surgery. The priority for me was that my husband knew what he needed to do next (even if he was not emotionally ready to handle it) in the event of my death. I got things written down for him so he knew where to find the important papers like my will (luckily I had updated it about 3 weeks ago), where the life insurance policy was and where the obituary was in my documents. Yes, I'm that prepared. I wrote the obituary many years ago because I've always wanted to have all my bases covered. Plus, I feel that facing the inevitability of and accepting death will occur eventually is the best way to have a healthy relationship with that life event.
The thing that was hardest for me though, from the time the doctor told me of what the test results could mean and up until the moment before the procedure, was the possibility of leaving my husband and children to cope with life without me. I've always raised my kids to be independent and expected my husband to be a strong person, but I'm the one who has worried over them the most and made sure that if they needed me I was there for them every step of the way. I realize that I wouldn't know exactly how hard it would be for them, but it bothered me deeply that I would be the one to cause them such pain in their lives; unintentionally, but the reason they would experience such sorrow.
That is what made for a shitty night's sleep before the procedure. But experiencing a lack of sleep didn't stop the level of adrenaline from coursing through my body; I was wide awake and alert during the intake and right up until they loaded me up with medication before the procedure. That part I was really looking forward to. It took away the cares of the day before and I experienced a little release from the stress.
Once the doctor got into the heart and released the dyes, they were able to determine that 99% of my Right Coronary Artery, 80% of the Left Diagonal and 40% of another artery, which name escapes me at the moment, were blocked by plaque. The RCA received two stents and the left received one. So now, I was a human being with three metal stents in my heart. I've moved on to a new club whose dues require a total life change. How exciting. I found all this out after the procedure as I was not fully coherent until a bit after, but my husband got the news right after everything was done.
I slowly came back after the procedure and by the time the drugs had worn off, I was feeling like there was a definite change that had occurred. Yes, I was incredibly sore where they had go into the femoral artery above my right leg, and there was an ache in my chest cavity from the heart getting used to the incredible blood flow it was experiencing, but the fact that I felt like I wasn't in a fog and very clear in the head was the first thing that I noticed. Amazing what good oxygen flow to the heart will do. Just wow. I had to openly chuckle and think to myself "Imagine what I will be able to do when my body catches up with my head!"
After the procedure, I spent the day and night in the ICU and was tended to by wonderful nurses (here's a shout-out to Caroly, who was the inspiration for writing this account!) and great technicians, even though the day and night was a constant battle with the blood pressure cuff and getting woken up at the most inconvenient time for labs and tests. Not a restful recovery, but still it was sprinkled with good connections to the staff who made it their mission to be as helpful as possible. They made it very bearable and I thank them for getting me through a tough time.
I'm home now and resting comfortably. My husband and I are working out the details to having the best recovery and a brighter, healthier future. He's been making sure that I don't over-extend myself, which he knows I can do very easily. He is insisting that I follow the requirements that my doctor has given me - slow and steady in all actions, but start moving in the direction of normal activity. My love has helped me walk around the kitchen island one extra time each time I have to get up to go to the bathroom or if two to three hours have passed. I'm up to four times around now. It's only been one day since I've been home; I would say that's a good sign for my recovery.
This was definitely what they refer to as a wake-up call. Considering
my family history, I really was convinced that with the stamina I
possessed and the care I was already taking with my body, DNA wouldn't
play as big a part that it did; I was wrong. I imagine that I will continue to get stronger as I institute healthier food choices, more physical activities and ease off on the stressful things in my life. Although I'm not a big fan of prescription medication and the dependence on any drug, I have to say it's already having a dramatic effect on me as the blood pressure numbers are finally in the normal range.
The procedure I went through and the stents now in place have risks associated with them that the average person does not have to be concerned with, so there still might be some unexpected things in my future, but I honestly have to say the benefits outweigh the risks. I might have to face another life or death situation again with reference to what was done, but who are we kidding... we face life or death every day. Life goes on until then.
So, all in all, this was the most incredible 'roller coaster of a ride' event in my life, to date. I had always pegged giving birth to my children as the most dramatic, but really the births were just the most painful and then ultimately, the most fulfilling after the hardship. Going through this really took me through emotions much more extreme than I've ever had to feel. Luckily, the outcome was a good one... this time.
I recently read a post on Facebook that said it was a lie that you only live once. Actually, you live every day but only die once. The person who said this was correct. I'm so glad that I'll have a chance to be here, living more days with all the people who make my life incredibly worth living.
*For all my local friends - Should you ever find yourself in need of a great cardiologist - Dr. Drew Allen, DO, Interventional Cardiologist - Hutchinson Regional Medical Center. Not only does he have some mad skills, he's got one of the best bedside manners I have ever witnessed.