Rabbit Trails & Heart Attacks (Part 5)

The large screen displayed my heart in full, magnified view. The dye flowed through the veins, spreading through my heart with each heartbeat. Suddenly it stopped on one side of my heart, clearly unable to pass through the one artery.

Dr. Renner expressed utter shock as she informed me that I have coronary artery disease. The disbelief in her voice, spoke for itself, but she also verbalized it.

“What does this mean?” I asked. Shock set in quickly, even as the questions formed. I needed answers. How could this happen to me? We didn’t have a strong family history of heart disease. Yes, my Grandpa had died in his eighties and Dad had died in his seventies after fighting diabetes and not watching his diet. I was young, healthy and high energy.

My mind raced again. Did I have weeks? Days? Months? Years, if I was lucky?

“This is odd.” Dr. Renner spoke again, obviously puzzled by what she saw. “All of your other arteries are perfect.” She paused, assessing the images on screen. “You have beautiful arteries! It’s just that one artery that is completely blocked.”

“See this here,” she pointed to the blocked artery, “no blood is getting through.” She went on to show me the normal arteries and blood vessels and how the blood flowed through, branching out from the main vessel, to provide oxygen to every part of the heart. She then explained that she was quite certain the blockage was not plaque but, that, in fact, she believed it had collapsed.

“What would cause something like that?” I asked

“Drugs. It’s something we see in young men who over exert themselves after doing dope.”

“Yeah…. that would not be me! I only tried it twice in my life and not even a whole joint! And that was twenty years ago! Is there anything else that could cause it?” I wanted answers. Fears threatened. Would I spend the rest of my life on the edge of death? (The mind is a funny thing… We all are nothing more than a breath, a heartbeat, away from death.)

“I’m going to try to balloon it and see if we can open it back up.” Ballooning went well and, to my relief, the blood flowed normally again. Dr. Renner observed it for five minutes to see if it would stay open or collapse again. Gradually the vessel constricted, leaving us with no choice but to proceed with an angioplasty—inserting a stent into my Left Anterior Descending Artery, to keep it open.

“Is the stent made with surgical stainless steel?” I asked.

“Are you allergic to metals?” she asked.

“I can handle surgical stainless steel, sterling silver and gold.”

It was determined that to proceed would put me at undue risk of my artery becoming blocked again due to scabbing, caused by allergic reaction to the metals. Dr. Renner and the medical team consulted with another cardiologist in the hospital to determine what would be the best course of action. In the end, they called a specialist at another hospital for advice. The final answer was to use a titanium stent, and soon the procedure was completed.

Walking out of OR ahead of me as the nurses pushed my bed through the doors, Dr. Renner greeted Tim in the waiting area. “We all have egg on our faces,” she said, before telling him that I had suffered a serious heart attack and explained what had turned a thirty minute procedure into several hours of waiting for him.

The care I received at St. Mary’s Hospital was second to none. Nurses, while busy, never neglected to check on me and respond to call bells. As traumatic as the experience was, they brought a sense of calm and safety to my badly shaken world.

Toward evening I noticed what felt like a wheezing or ‘sqeaking’ in my chest when I breathed. Memories are vague. I was exhausted and drifted in and out of sleep but at some point the nurse informed me that I had developed a touch of Pericarditis from the strain on my heart.

Oh the irony! The thing that the medical team originally thought had started the heart issues, and had delayed me getting the help I needed, had developed in the end, because of the delay! Whatever it meant in terms of my ongoing health, I believed I would be okay. Either way, the road ahead was not going to be easy, and the recovery would require time and patience.

When tragedy strikes, we instinctively go into survival mode, numb to reality. It is only in hindsight that we recognize this ‘autopilot’ and the shock and strain of what we lived through.  Even fear is put on hold, in extreme situations, until a time when we are able to process it. For me that ‘day of reckoning’ with this reality, came a few months after I was released from hospital. I had moments of curiosity about what had really happened, but I had not found the courage to explore it, until that day.

As I am wont to do, when looking for information, I wandered over to my computer and started to search reliable websites, like Mayo clinic and others like it, to find out exactly what an LAD collapse is, and what the associated risks are, both short term and long term. On one site, I read several stories of other young women who had suffered this particular heart attack, also with no explanation as to the cause. I learned that it is one of the most dangerous heart attacks—morbidly known as ‘the Widow Maker’—and that I was fortunate to be alive, even though the apex of my heart was quite damaged.

One article in particular terrified me. A woman in Dallas Texas, only thirty-seven years old, had survived the heart attack and three months later suffered Sudden Cardiac Death just as she arrived at the hospital emergency unit for help.

I stopped reading and stumbled to the phone. I called Tim. I was cold, shaking. Tim answered. All my fears spilled out. I was going to die. The apex of my heart had been quite damaged and one day, I was certain, I would drop over dead. I was worried about our little children. Who would care for them?

Tim listened patiently and tried to reassure me. It was the first time I faced my fears head on. I wanted so desperately to trust God with my life, and sometimes I did, but in those vulnerable moments, fear took over and I felt like I was suffocating again. Eventually I hung up and tried to go back to what I had been doing before I searched for answers and found that story.

The story kept tugging at my mind and, with it, the fear. In a moment of resilient determination, I returned to the computer. I would finish reading the story and if it revealed I was high risk, I would deal with it. This torment could not continue.

To my amazement, only about two sentences later in the story, I discovered that the hospital staff were able to restart the woman’s heart and she went on to live a full and active life. I needed that reassurance, to know that there was hope and a chance that I would survive and live a full life. I still had work to do and there was one specific passion I needed to pursue. The thought of dying without it, grieved me deeply.

I knew I couldn’t put my faith in that information—only God is deserving of my faith—but in my humanity that boost gave me courage to face the future and let God bring something good out of yet another tragedy. And with time He would. That tragedy stirred in me the passion to pursue a dream that I had carried in my heart for many years; a dream that required courage. And that courage that had been developed by facing one fear after another over the course of many years.  Now, facing the fear that my dream would go to the grave with me, I knew had to pursue.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because You, oh God, are with me. You comfort me and bring purpose out of the shadows.

In the hospital when I feared I would die, I begged God to let me live because I didn’t want Tim to be a widow, and for my family to have to do life without their mother. But there was one more prayer that I prayed. I wanted to survive so that I could tell my story and give other victims of abuse and violence the courage to face their pain, and overcome it by inviting Jesus into ‘the hell of life’.

The dream came complete with a plan, but I had never been able to see my way through that plan before because my fears were more powerful than my dream.

As I faced death, and the thought that my dream could go to the grave with me, my dream overpowered my fear. Somehow I knew I would survive and see that dream come to life.

Today I live that dream in the form of Generations Unleashed–a ministry we are launching with our first conference for men and women–and Faith Girls Unleashed the ministry we started for women in 2010.

I wouldn’t want to go through the heart attack again. I don’t believe it should have happened, and the medication we feel was to blame has been pulled from the market, for which we are thankful. But I am thankful that God used that near-death encounter to make me realize if I don’t risk the dream, it may well go to the grave with me.

© Trudy Metzger

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Rabbit Trails & Heart Attacks (Part 4)

…Continued…

Wednesday November 22, I spent the day in bed, disturbed only when nurses came for stats, and when the on call doctor popped by on rounds. “How did you sleep?” he asked.

“Like a baby!”

“Must have been that little white pill,” he grinned.

“Nah… I spit that in the waste basket the instant the nurse turned away,” I said. “I didn’t need it.”

“Really?”

“It’s still in the garbage.”

He chuckled, gave me that humoured ‘you are a defiant one’ look, went over a few other questions, and then moved on.

I was forbidden the luxury of getting out of bed alone and was told to buzz a nurse if I needed to get up for anything.

The rest of the day blurs into nothingness—probably because I did nothing but sleep, eat, and sleep some more.

That evening, the eve of my 37th birthday, Tim and our children brought a cake and birthday presents to the hospital.  We walked to the family room and had a little birthday party. Our time together lasted just over thirty minutes, followed by lots of hugs and kisses and a short walk back to my room.

Having spent my entire day in bed, it was good to be out, but I was ready to crawl back in, exhausted from the short escapade.

Minutes after Tim and our children left, I realized I was in trouble. I pulled the call bell. Each nurse was kind and sensitive, tending quickly to patients, and always reassuring me. The one that answered my call bell was no different.

I tried to explain what I was feeling—the pressure in my chest, difficulty breathing, maybe some pain—it was hard to describe the symptoms.

“I would like to call Tim. I don’t want to be alone,” I told her.

“Are you worried?” she asked.

“Worried? No.   ….Concerned? Yes.”

“Why are you concerned?”she asked.

“Because I have five children and they need a mom,” I answered.

“They have a mom—they have you,” she assured me.

“I’m not there for them right now, am I?” I challenged.

“Well, no.” She visibly relaxed.

“And depending what happens, they won’t have me again,” I said.

“Mrs. Metzger, there is still a lot that can be done for you, should things get worse.” The look of alarm that crossed her face, betrayed her confidence. It was at that moment I realized she was trying to read the real message I was sending. I had worked in a nursing home and understood the subtle signs that someone’s life is in danger and in that instant, I realized I was sending the message. My life really was in danger.

A doctor came to see me and ordered morphine to open the blood vessels. And so began a birthday night, high on morphine. Happy days!

Not how I would choose to celebrate, on the one hand, but thankful I had it when I needed it. They gave me the highest possible dose as often as they could, and still I asked for more, just to manage the pain.

Tim returned to the hospital and together we were transferred to a room where he could sleep in the bed next to me.

“Thank you for coming back,” I said. “I’ve watched people die alone at the nursing home, and I don’t want that to happen. If I am going to die, I want someone to be with me.”

Tim kissed my forehead—an act of tenderness that has always comforted me and communicated deep affection.

He didn’t want to lie down, preferring to stand beside my bed, or sit there and watch over me. I wanted him to be with me, but not to hover and lose sleep—that only caused me to worry about him. And, though I have learned to invite Tim’s love and guidance into my life, I am, and always will be, independent by nature. Being ‘watched over’ puts me ill at ease.

“Please go to bed. I promise I will call you if I need you. To have you watch over me just adds stress and will make things worse,” I explained.  I didn’t like having to ask for that space, but I felt like I was suffocating in my own body and to have anyone or anything close to me, made it worse. I felt as though I couldn’t breath, and anyone within three feet of me was a threat to my oxygen supply.

When Tim reluctantly agreed to lie on the other bed, I slipped in and out of a restless sleep. The night seemed to drag on forever.

At one point, through a haze of drugs and fatigue, I saw the room fill of doctors and nurses, discussing my situation. They were quite certain it was Pericarditis and it would take time to recover. What they needed to do in the present was get me through this crisis. Whatever the cause, my heart was failing me. Badly.

 

I wanted the pain to end. The only thing that prevented me from asking God to take me home, was my love for my husband and our five children. Every time I pictured my beautiful family, my heart cried out to God to get me through this and let me live—at least until they were grown up enough to care for themselves.

Morning broke, and with it the climax of pain and trauma, as my body revolted against the high doses of morphine with head-splitting pain and nausea. I vomited. And then I fell into a peaceful sleep. I had survived the darkest night.

Throughout the day, my 37th birthday, I progressively improved, so that, by evening, I felt quite good and was hopeful that I would return home the next day.

Tim had spent part of the day with me before heading home, and then returned again in the evening for a short visit, this time without the children, afraid that the strain would be too much. I missed them but knew I had nothing to offer, in the way of energy.

Tim was relieved to see how much I had improved and I was thankful to be past the nightmare of whatever had caused the previous night’s flare up.

I settled down quickly after he left, my body obviously exhausted. Around eleven o’clock I noticed that the heart rhythm printout on my heart monitor screen was abnormal. I called a nurse and pointed out the irregularity.

“That’s nothing to worry about,” she assured me. In hindsight I can only assume that her response was superficial, intended to keep me from worrying, or she was ill-informed. If the former, then it worked. I immediately settled down and went to sleep.

The following morning, Friday November 24, I asked the nurse if I could go home later that day. I was ready to have my life back. She said that I would possibility be transferred to St. Mary’s General hospital in Kitchener, to the cardiac care unit for some ‘routine’ testing, just to make sure there was nothing more going on.

And so it was, that, not long after our conversation, I was in an ambulance with Tim and two attendants, en route to St. Mary’s for more testing.

The technician went to work almost immediately. I watched the Echocardiogram closely. Before they gave me the news, I knew we were up against something bigger. The rhythm was off, and the black spot on the apex of my heart wasn’t supposed to be there—of that I was certain.

Within minutes I was informed that I would need to have another procedure—an angiogram—to further investigate my heart. Fortunately, thanks to studying Biology, I knew what an angiogram was and what I should expect next. I had written an exam, only two weeks earlier, on the function of the heart, angiograms and heart attacks. Nothing of what was happening, was over my head. I understood it well.

In OR I was introduced to a lovely young cardiologist not much older than I, who would do the procedure, along with about half a dozen nurses and several support staff who would assist in various ways.

Dr. Renner carefully explained each step as she worked. In between, we chatted about a variety of things, like why she became a cardiologist and how many children I had, and things like that. Had it not been for the hard metal table, and the back pain, it could have been a fairly pleasant experience.

…To Be Continued…

© Trudy Metzger

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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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