On my to-do list for the day I had a heart attack? "Run," "finish book edits," and "tickle the kids." Soon I'd be wondering if it was my last day on Earth -- and wishing I'd had a chance to reorder that damn list. Here are some of the things I learned from having a heart attack at age 40.
1. I didn't know how a heart attack happened.Seriously. I never clutched my chest or blacked out. I just felt like I was having really bad indigestion. It woke me up in the middle of the night and the pain traveled down my right arm. I jokingly said to my husband, “If I’m having a heart attack, don’t read my journals,” because it was that unlikely.
I had just run eight miles that morning, I have low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and no family history of anything like heart disease. But my husband really didn’t like the way I was pacing and not making much sense and he marched me to the ER, where they checked the troponin levels in my blood and said "we need you in a cath lab right away."
The cath lab is where they threaded a tiny camera into my heart and tried to unclench what they thought was a blockage or spasm. The rest of my heart was pumping away, but this one artery was so narrow, there was no way blood could go through it. The doctors eventually had to put in a balloon and a stent. I watched the whole thing on the screen as it was happening. It was fascinating, terrifying, and I really wished they served popcorn.2. I didn't know how much I loved formula.I’d just given birth to my third kid and was a pretty avid breast feeder. After they stented me, I had to lay flat for hours to recalibrate and I could feel my breasts getting hard and leaky. Pumping milk in a prone position is basically just taking a hot, sweaty milk bath.
Then they told me that I’d have to be on Plavix and aspirin for at least a year, and they weren’t sure if this heart attack was triggered by hormonal imbalances. So my husband started dishing out the Simulac.
When I came home, it was painful giving my baby boy a bottle, especially because I felt so fragile and was still chock full of milk. But he is deliriously happy, healthy and chubby, so I’d say that was a win-win. 3. I didn't know so many people did coke.The cardiac team asked me at least three times if I did cocaine. Then they took my husband into another room and asked him too. When we both said no, they waited 10 minutes and asked us again.
“It looks like a toxin entered your body,” explained the head cardiologist. “Can you think of anything strange you might have inhaled, or some herbs you might have eaten?”
“I stole some of my kids’ vitamins and drank a bunch of kombucha; does that count?” I asked. He thought that was hilarious. And that’s when they stopped questioning me.
4. I didn't know how many arteries were in the human body.Still not sure I do, actually, but the major ones number around 20. At this point, the doctors I’ve seen have mapped most of the arteries in my body and linked this heart attack to a rare disease called Fibro Muscular Dysplasia. It's non-progressive and non-threatening (in my case, at least).
It means some of my arteries are very twisty and two of my carotid arteries look like a string of beads. There is still a clear path for all of my blood to flow through. The coronary artery that started this whole hullabaloo dissected, which is why it looked so thin on the screen. Staring at those images and watching how much work my arteries do every second of every minute was astounding.5. I didn't know my daughter was an exact replica of me.Emotionally, that is. She didn’t witness me doing anything dramatic like clutching my chest and collapsing; I dropped her off at kindergarten and then came home and kept complaining about indigestion. Then my husband took me to the ER and I didn’t see my kids again for two days, because the cardiac ward is not a good place for small visitors.
Apparently, while I was away, my daughter sobbed and said she was scared I was dying. (My husband told her that I had a vein that needed some help opening up again, but that I’d be fine.) When I came home, she gave me a half-smile and a shrug, then went back to her watercolor project.
So excruciatingly familiar. Whenever I feel most terrified or overwhelmed, I’ll dive into my journal and scribble nonsense for hours before I’ll admit I hurt.6. I didn't know what my best friend, Baba, had been through.One of my best friends -- nicknamed "Babaganoug" when we had a radio show called “The Manishewitz Sisters” back in junior high -– died last year. Short story: Cancer sucks. I focused on how Baba was going to defy all the statistics and prove all her doctors wrong, which she did for a grueling 18 months.
But in those darkest hours, I now see that I willfully denied what she was facing. I tried to talk to her about our Trapper Keepers from grade school and the raid we almost did at sleepaway camp instead of hearing her terror about the cold unknown.
When I was on the cardiac ward, I heard someone die across the hall from me. I heard her pain and fear and I thought of Baba going through that, and I wanted to scream and sob with her, but of course I couldn’t even whimper. (See #5.)7. I didn't know how much we coagulate on a regular basis.Being on blood thinners has its perks. Like the whole keeping-my-stent-open-and-making-sure-I-don’t-ever-go-through-this-again thing. But blood thinners also mean I bleed a lot now. Like, a hangnail can look like my hand went through a meat grinder. And my legs are covered in blossoming bruises from bumping into the corner of anything. But I like to think of it as a reminder to be gentler with myself. And to buy more Mickey Mouse band-aids. 8. I didn't know I was so bad at sexting.When my husband finally went home to get some rest and see our kids, one of the nurses asked me if there was any chance I was pregnant again.
I texted home: "What happened the last time we tried to have sex?" His response: "You made some bad joke about how big you were down there after childbirth."
Me: "After that, where did we finish?"Him: "Dunno."Me: "Is your mom on the couch next to you?"Him: "Yup."Me: "K. I love you."Him: Love you. 9. I didn’t know how much each day is a gift.Sounds obvious, but I forgot it all too often. The fact that we get to wake up and see the sun is a miracle. Each breath, each heartbeat, a phenomenon. No matter what you believe spiritually, there’s no doubt the human body is an incredible machine.
10. And I still don’t know how to respect my heart fully.Staring up at that screen, it really did feel like I was looking at someone else’s body. I had no control over whether that artery was going to open, close, split or explode. And even if it’s not physically responsible for our emotions, I wondered how I could communicate better with my heart. It’s just a muscle, after all, with ferocious responsibilities. Every day, I need to remind myself to be still and listen to it. Put my hand on my chest, and marvel at its steady lub-dub-lub-dub. It’s the least I could do, really, to give thanks.