Rabbit Trails & Heart Attacks (Part 3)

(Continued…)

It was 7:15pm before Tim arrived home. In the meantime I had made arrangements for the children to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. To my relief, Grandpa had suggested they stay for the night, since our furnace was still not working.  Immediately after Tim arrived, we took the children to Grandma’s and from there we headed to the hospital.

Our family doctor was on call. She listened to my heart, then my lungs, took my blood pressure and did the usual ‘once over’ that one might get if you went in with flu symptoms. Everything checked out so she sent me home.

I should have felt relieved. Tim & I had the house to ourselves for the rest of the evening and night—a rare thing in our busy household—but the restlessness stayed. Something was wrong. I knew it. This was not going to be a romantic early celebration of my upcoming birthday, though I did joke about that and Tim.

Back home in our chilly house, I went online and did a Google search of the various symptoms I had. Nothing definitive jumped out at me. Heart attack or pneumonia were the only two that made any sense and I was not a candidate for either. It had to be some other bug.

A nice hot bath would help fight whatever I was coming down with or, at the very least, the hot water would help warm me up and make me comfortable. I filled the Jacuzzi as full as possible, the water as hot as I could stand it, and then asked Tim to get a book and read near me–I didn’t want to be alone. Never before, in thirteen years of marriage, had I been afraid to be alone when I was unwell. It was another sign that something more serious was going on. Another sign I overlooked.

The hot water felt good. Relaxing. For ten to fifteen minutes I ran the Jacuzzi, letting the bubbles soothe my body.

Then, suddenly, my chin ached badly. Pain. Pain everywhere. My left arm hurt unbearably and the back of my tongue ached. I was rolling from side to side in the tub trying to get away from the crushing pressure in my chest. My mind felt numb.

“Tim, we have to go back to the hospital. Something is terribly wrong. I don’t know what’s going on but I am not okay. Please go get my coat and warm up the van,” I could hear desperation in my own voice—as if I was my own audience, assessing my situation. Back in my clothes—this time track pants and a sweat shirt, I was ready to go. I clung to the rail as I walked carefully down the seven stairs to the main floor. I called emerge to tell them my symptoms and ask for advice. Should we drive? Should we call 911?

They told us to save time and drive directly to the hospital—they would be waiting and ready for me. Minutes before we arrived, the pain subsided. We debated going back home, but thought better of it. What if the episode happened again… and worse? Better to be in the hospital.

Our family doctor walked into my room, a puzzled expression on her face. “Didn’t… I… just… see  you?” she asked, enunciating her words as she spoke.

“Yes. I’m back. Something is wrong,” I said, then explained what had happened. I listed the symptoms, all except the one about pain down my left arm. I knew that it was not a typical symptom for women and the last thing I wanted was for a doctor to think I was imagining things. I remembered my other doctor yelling at me when I had skin cancer, and telling me I was depressed. I wasn’t going to go through that again!

My doctor ordered blood tests, ECG and chest x-rays and told me that I would be held until test results returned. The blood test took longest.

When the x-ray and ECG were done my doctor popped in my room to update us. “Well, I have good news. It’s not your heart and it’s not your lungs. Now we just need the blood results to see if anything shows up. “

Tim and I chatted and got caught up on life ‘stuff’ while we waited for the blood test results. It was shortly after two o’clock in the morning when my doctor returned. She sat down on the foot end of my bed.

“Trudy, tell me again, from the beginning, all of your symptoms and what happened today,” she said, with that look that says, ‘something is wrong.’

I recounted the day’s events again, and like the first time, I left out the detail about the pain in my left arm. “Why?” I asked.

“The blood-work showed that you have elevated heart enzymes,” she explained.

“What does that mean?” I asked, knowing the answer. I had studied the heart only weeks before in Biology and had scored 96% on the exam. I knew what it meant but I needed to hear her explain, so that I wouldn’t second guess myself.

“It means that you might have had a heart attack,” she said, “or you could have Pericarditis—inflammation of the lining of the heart. Have you had a flu or sore throat recently?”

“Nothing really… Maybe a mild sore throat for a day or so, but that was a while ago. Now what?”

“It means we’re keeping you here—you’re staying so that we can watch you.”

I don’t remember how long Tim stayed, but sometime toward morning he went home. I was tired. My mind was reeling and yet with a strange sense of peace—I had shifted to survival mode. How could this be happening to me? It was two days before my 37th birthday—I was too young and healthy.

My father had died of heart attack, at seventy-three, after about twenty years of dealing with Diabetes, and not making healthy food choice and life-style changes. I was always healthy and active. It made no sense.

Granted, I had AVNRT—Atrial Ventricular Nodal Re-entry Tachycardia—an Arrhythmia that caused the heart to suddenly speed up for no apparent reason. I had only had a few episodes in my life. And my heart had stayed around one hundred and twenty to thirty beats per minute even with the worst episodes—never completely out of control. The doctors had assured me it was nothing to worry about.

My heart rate had not gone up during this hospital stay—there was clearly no tachycardia happening.  This was, without question a new issue and only time would tell what it all meant. Still, my mind raced….

Would I live another day… another year? Would Tim be a widower at thirty-five? Would our children be motherless?

Tears spilled onto my pillow. I didn’t want to think about those possibilities.

Only a few weeks earlier I had been out with Alicia, getting items for her twelfth birthday spa party when she asked, seemingly out of the blue, “Mommy, if you died, would Daddy remarry?”

“I hope so! We’ve been so happy together, and I wouldn’t want him to be lonely! Since I would be in Heaven, it wouldn’t matter to me,” I answered. “Why do you ask?”

“I don’t want a step mother. Ever. If you and Daddy die, I hope it isn’t until I’m eighteen. Then I would take care of my brothers and sisters,” she said.

We had chatted for a bit about it and then I forgot the conversation.

Lying in the hospital bed, uncertain of my future, I wondered if it had been a fore-shadowing. Was my life about to end and my daughter’s nightmare about to start? Even as these thoughts invaded my mind, I made the decision to trust God with my life. I had bumped into death several times, or so it felt, and I had always come through okay. I had to believe that I was protected, as long as my purpose was not fulfilled. I had a sense that my purpose had only barely begun, but, if I was wrong, I was confident that the same God who had always been with me, would also be with my husband and children.

The doctor ordered Lorazepan—that magic little pill that brings calm into almost any world. Yet another secret I learned, working in a nursing home. However, I had no intentions of taking a ‘calming pill’. I felt calm and at peace mentally and emotionally, in spite of the foreboding circumstances, so I politely refused.

The nurse insisted it would help. I’m stubborn to a fault when I believe something strongly enough, but I didn’t have the energy to argue, so I accepted the tablet, paused, and carefully slipped it under my tongue so I could spit it out when she left.

I felt a bit like I did as a kid, when someone caught me with a candy I wasn’t supposed to have, and almost expected the nurse to say, “Open your mouth and show me that it’s gone… and now, under your tongue…” She didn’t.

The instant she turned around I popped that little pill out of my mouth, slipped it into a Kleenex and then into the garbage.

I fell asleep, at peace with God and life… or death, as the case may be.

To be continued…

© Trudy Metzger

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Rabbit Trails & Heart Attacks (Part 2)

(Continued….)

I rubbed the middle of my chest. Took a deep breath. I was definitely not getting the oxygen I needed. This had to be my imagination. That, or I was coming down with one heck of a cold. There was no way I was this out of shape…

I called Tim. Maybe talking about it would help. I explained what was happening, and immediately shifted to denial. “It’s probably nothing more than a cold. Just a chest thing going on. Anyway… I think I’m okay now.”

“Take it easy and don’t do too much,” Tim instructed. I laughed and told him again that I was fine and promised not to do too much.

For a few minutes I sat there, resting, while waiting for the repairman. But then I grew restless and returned to vacuuming. The breathlessness returned instantly, so I called Telehealth Ontario, to ask their nurses for an opinion.  The nurse calmly went through her endless list of questions, and then said, “You need to see a doctor sometime today as a precaution.”

I called my doctor’s office, recounted the details and symptoms yet again, and asked for the first available appointment. The nurse assured me there was no need to rush—the symptoms didn’t sound too concerning—she would fit me in the next afternoon. I agreed to wait.

Shortly before noon the repairman arrived, in perfect time, just moments before Tim came home for lunch. They sorted out the problem only to discover they needed to order a part before repairing the furnace, which meant a cold house for one more night.

After lunch I decided I was well enough to go to work, teaching grade ten math.

I absolutely loved teaching! I had a delightful class of adolescent and adult students, ranging in age from sixteen years old to twenty-four. Some students had tried the class before, but struggled to grasp the concepts. I invested everything in first understanding, and then teaching what I had learned.

I would learn a few days later, in the hospital, that in a matter of weeks their marks had gone from the ‘sixty percent and less’ that they had averaged with the other teacher, to eighty percent and up. It wasn’t that I was so miraculously gifted, but rather, I understood how difficult math could be to grasp, so I took time to explain what I struggled with.

My students and I enjoyed every minute together. We studied hard and laughed a lot. When I arrived in class—late—that cold November day, they were all studying intently but stopped to cheer in welcome at my entrance, and to ask how I was doing.

“I’m …pretty…  good, “ I said hesitantly.

“Are you upset about your furnace?… Is it going to cost a lot to replace it?”

“Oh no,” I laughed. “A furnace is a furnace. They can be replaced. It’s not about that,”  I paused. I wanted to inform them of my health issue, without overwhelming or worrying them.  “I just don’t feel too well.”… I paused…, “so… if I collapse, call 911, it could be my heart.”

I spoke playfully and everyone laughed—including me. I didn’t think that it really could be anything that serious, yet I instinctively mentioned it, in humour, so that they would respond quickly if I collapsed.

The classroom quieted as everyone returned to their lessons. I seized the opportunity to study the next day’s lesson. I wasn’t really a teacher, after all–at least not a licensed one–and this day I had to learn algebra for the following day so that I could teach effectively. I had only excelled in business math, problem solving and basic math. Algebra, geometry and other ‘strange’ math required a great deal of effort and study, on my part.

As I sat there, quietly studying, the feeling of un-wellness suddenly lifted and I felt instantly normal. It wasn’t until it was gone that I realized how unwell I had felt. To put my class at ease, I thought I should tell them.

“Well, whatever it was, it just passed—I’m feeling better!” I announced enthusiastically.

“Gas?” a student asked.

There’s one in every class! We all burst out laughing. The student, having had a moment to contemplate his impulsive response, apologetically acknowledged it was poor judgement, and said he was glad that I was feeling better.

The day at school ended without incident. At home, our children and the smell of a roast beef dinner greeted me.

I would quickly feed them and then head out to pick up Tim who was still at the office. We had shared a vehicle since early marriage, to cut costs, and for the most part it had worked out very well for us. It was nights like this that it became more challenging.

Exhausted, I crashed on the couch, intending to rest for only a few minutes but, instead, I fell sound asleep. The unusual fatigue should have alarmed me, but I overlooked the signs again.

Aside from fighting the fatigue, dinner with the children was uneventful. As soon as we were finished, I sent them to get washed up and ready for their children’s programs at church.

Moments later, I returned to the couch with a phone in hand, suddenly aware that I was really not well. I called Tim.

”I’m sorry, I can’t come pick you up…. I really am not well,” I said. “I don’t know what it is but I have this overwhelming sense of danger, like I shouldn’t be driving. Do you think one of the other guys would give you a ride home?”

I felt foolish, like I was wrestling a ghost, and the ghost was winning. My symptoms were undefined and I was staying home based on a vague ‘sense’ that something was very. I wasn’t in pain and even the earlier symptoms of breathlessness were gone.

Fortunately, one of the truck drivers at the feed mill, who lived not too far from our home, was still there and agreed to give Tim a ride home, but it would be another fifteen minutes before they could leave. I was relieved.

It was 5:30pm, and with a fifteen minute drive, the wait for Tim to return would not be long. What the driver didn’t mention, and what under normal circumstances would not have been an issue, was that he had to make a stop on the way home.

 

To be continued…

© Trudy Metzger

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Rabbit Trails & Heart Attacks (Part 1)

November 21, 2006, I had a heart attack….

This morning I’ve opted to go on a rabbit trail from my current topic of Sexual Abuse and Violence, and am telling the story of the heart attack I survived in 2006, two days before my 37th birthday. Nearly six years have passed….

Yesterday I had a stress test, to check the strength of my heart. It is always a bit disconcerting to go there, because of the damage that was done. Sometimes denial, and living day to day without details of what’s happening under the skin, is easier. But in the past half year or so I have had episodes of unbearable fatigue, so I asked for the test, just to make sure it’s not that.

I recognize that part of the fatigue is the medications I’m on because they suppress my ‘fight or flight’ instinct and give me low blood pressure and heart rate. (Lowest I’ve gone is 89 over 58, with a heart rate of low 40’s, for those of you who like medical details.) The body adjusts to these things, and with time it’s only the ‘new unusual’ that causes concern.

People ask me why I never tell that story, why I don’t do a public talk about it, when I do conferences or public speaking. Mostly, other than taking my pills to keep my heart going, I forget that I am a heart patient. Well, and paying the bill for the pills. That’s always a not-so-subtle reminder. And when I think about going on roller coasters, in hot tubs, horror houses and stuff like that, I know I will never be allowed to be part of that with my children, and haven’t been allowed since a month after my oldest daughter turned 12.

So how did it happen? How did it all begin?

***

It was an ordinary fall morning, or so I thought when I got out of bed, that memorable day, November 21, 2006, when my life would change forever. Normal, as I knew it, would never be the same again, and adjusting to my new normal would be a long journey with many crossroads. At every crossroad I would have to choose between life and death, hope and despair.

I awakened that morning to an unusually cold house. We had already adjusted the thermometer to prepare for winter-like weather so that the furnace would kick in and get rid of some of the early morning chill before our feet hit the floor. This morning it was bitterly cold, no heat to soften the bite.

Tim checked the furnace and discovered it wasn’t working so he made a few phone calls and arranged for a service man to come mid-morning. If I stayed home in the morning and did some cleaning and tidying before the service man arrived, I could still be at work in time to teach math class – that was very important to me.

I was working under a 7-week contract at the Open Door Program, an adult education facility, as a teacher’s assistant in the morning and teaching grade 10 math in the afternoon. Finishing my studies in Biology and Chemistry on November 4, had earned me my high school diploma at age 36. Immediately after the principal approached me to see if I would ‘teach’ grade 10 math.

When she called, my initial response was to laugh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even do Grade 10 math,” I said, “so I don’t think I can teach it,”

Growing up in a culture where children were not encouraged to finish school because of the ‘worldly influences’, finishing high school was virtually unheard of, especially in women. I had gone farther than many by finishing grade nine but when I left home later that year I had to make a living. By finishing my high school in an Adult Education program I received math credits for mutual funds and life insurance licensing, as well as the years of bookkeeping experience. But I had no confidence in academic math.

“But you did amazingly well in Chemistry and Biology, I’m sure you’d be fine. You’re a natural – I’ve watched you.”

I laughed, but, with a bit of coaxing from the principal, I decided it was too great an opportunity to pass off. I opted for my philosophy regarding adventure and told the principal “I’ll try anything once (as long as it is safe and legal). But,” I added, “if I discover I’m in over my head, I’ll let you know.”

“That’s fair,” she agreed, and proceeded to instruct me to get a police check, an official resume` and a school board application as a teacher’s assistant. She explained that for me to ‘teach’ the students, they would be pulled from the regular Adult Education system into a self-study program with me as their ‘guide’ or ‘tutor’.

With a lot of prayer and hard work, I managed to learn the lessons one day and teach them the next, literally staying only one step ahead of the class. I bonded well with the students and together we got through the lessons. We worked hard, knowing that at approximately two and a half weeks into the program the students would be tested. I looked forward to getting that test done to make sure we were on the right track. Though I was quite certain I was teaching the math right, there was the lingering ‘what if’.

We were nearing test time and that was why I didn’t want to miss school the day our furnace died. Some of the students had a hard time with math and I wanted to prepare them to the best of my ability, and ensure a passing grade.

I picked up toys and began to vacuum as I waited for the service man. Our family room is a nice size but it was no gymnasium – nothing I should have had difficulty cleaning. However, I had not completed vacuuming half of the room when I stopped and subconsciously rubbed a spot in the centre of my chest. I took a deep breath and kept working. By the third ‘pause’ I realized what was happening and a sense of restlessness overcame me.

To be continued…

© Trudy Metzger

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