One year ago I was still living in New Orleans – enjoying the weekend that started our week-long Thanksgiving break from school. I was a bit reflective, as it was going to be our last Thanksgiving in Louisiana and I had big plans focused on preparing for our move back home to Minnesota at the end of the school year.
John Lennon was right: ‘Life is what happens while you’re making other plans’.
The Sunday morning before turkey day was pretty typical get up at five, feed the dogs, enjoy good weekend coffee, check out Facebook, and online news outlets, get some writing done, all before heading to the French Quarter for church.
All was routine until nine-oh-five. In the intervening 8,763 hours (as I write this) a lot has changed:
We are back home in Minnesota as planned – wiser, happier, none the worse for wear. Well, maybe a little extra wear and tear. Well earned, I might add.
Later today, we will drive an hour to my daughter and son-in-law’s house to help celebrate my grandson’s seventh birthday. First time in six years this event will have us as real-life, not Skyped-in, participants.
On Friday, I received a thumbs-up on all that I am doing from my new doctor here in Minneapolis.
Over the passed year, I have learned to lead a healthier lifestyle, and I mostly stick with it. I learned much of what I know of such things from the staff at my cardiac rehab unit in New Orleans, where I was something of a rock star due to my A. regular attendance and B. the fact that in twelve weeks of grueling, challenging, but fun work I was the only member of my group to never fall off a treadmill (or any other piece of workout equipment) and/or get stopped in the middle of some sort of activity because my heart monitor was going bonkers.
I learned a lot from the four women running that rehab unit, and miss them tremendously. I am pretty sure they miss me, too or at least the different twist I brought to the proceedings. I am fairly certain I am still their only patient to regularly and repeatedly have this exchange in cardiac rehab:
“So, am I cleared to get back on my pogo stick yet?”
“No. And before you ask again, pogo stick is not considered appropriate aerobic exercise for rehab.”
Yeah, they miss me, too.
I have learned a lot over the last 365 days. On a Sunday very much like this one, yet nothing at all like this one, life changed for me. Here is how it all went down, as I recorded it then.
Listen to your body
On Sunday, I had a heart attack. By Monday, I had learned a lot about a number of things; first and foremost, pay attention and listen to your body.
Sunday morning, just past nine. I was working on my laptop, and checking the time, as I was going to get dressed, and be out the door just after nine thirty to go to church. I was just wrapping up what I was typing, noting that it was 9:05, and I felt a weird pain behind my breastbone.
This is not an unusual area of pain/discomfort for me, as I have a touch of arthritis on an upper rib, and sometimes, especially when I have been physically active, the tendons and muscles running across the are become inflamed. I can usually massage out the resulting muscle knot with my fingers, and sometimes throw on an ice pack.
But this was different.
It was not an intense pain, but it was steady, and noticeably different. I cannot describe exactly how it was that much different, but I knew it was out of the norm. I figured I would let it go for a few minutes and see, but then I felt two pin-pricks on each side of my jaw. That, I knew was not right, even though they lasted just a few seconds and were not radiating to/from anywhere. Then, I felt the same sensation is each shoulder, and even though it lasted only a second or two, and was again not radiating, I knew I should get into the hospital.
I woke up my wife, who had dozed off while reading, and told her I needed to get to the ER. We quickly got dressed, informed our son Sam about what was going on, and got in the car for the fifteen-minute drive to the hospital. While getting dressed, I felt a minor wave of nausea, so quickly popped in a TUMS.
The drive was fine, until the last few minutes, when the pain in my chest intensified a bit; not tremendously, but enough so that it was noticeable. I was not, at this point in great pain, but I knew something was way off.
Two minutes later, we pull up to the Oschner ER door, Amy goes to park the car. It was a blustery fall morning, cool and windy, but when I got out of the car and stood up, I felt flushed. When I walked in through the automatic doors, the desk staff commented on the cold wind blowing in. I walked up to the desk, gave them my info and insurance card, and they had me go sit down. I still felt off, but was not in appreciable pain. The clock on the wall said 9:45.
Then a young triage doc named Lance called my name, had me sit and took my BP. He looked at the reading, then immediately ushered me into a room about ten feet away, where he hooked me up to an EKG. he asked how long I had been having this pain, and I said, “It started just after nine” to which Lance responded, “And you came right here?” We finished, he walked me out and told me to take a seat in the waiting area. Amy had just walked in from parking the car, so this all (BP, EKG) happened very quickly. Lance said he would be right back, and I took the chair next to Amy.
By now I was very warm, and as I sat next too Amy, the pain started to intensify – actually, the pressure in my chest started to intensify, which led to pain all throughout my torso. A few minutes later Lance reappeared with a wheelchair, and said “Mr. Lucker, let’s go.” By now I was feeling rotten; chest pressure, I was hot, starting to become nauseous. As Lance started picking up speed with the wheelchair, it was like being on a carnival ride; I was relieved because the rushing air was cooling, but my nausea was getting worse. It seemed like a reasonable trade-off. Lance then turned sharply into a big exam room, and I counted at least eight people there, including a blonde woman who immediately introduced herself and said, “Mr. Lucker, Hi, I’m doctor —-, and we’re going to get you taken care of.” I unfortunately can’t remember her name, but she was incredible.
It was just like on TV. the doctor who had introduced herself was obviously the maestro, directing the crazy medical symphony; directing some staff members, asking for various stats from others, and talking to me directly, pointedly, calmly. One of the first things she asked was the same series of questions I got from Lance, with almost the same response: “How long have you been having this chest pain?” and “And you came right in to the ER? That’s good.”
This pattern repeated itself, but with variations once the catheter lab guys and cardiac surgeons got involved: “How many hours ago did the chest pain start?” followed by obvious surprise when I replied, “about nine this morning” – every time the question was asked an answered, the doctor would glance at the clock, then verify my response with something along the lines of, “So just in the last hour or so?” to which I kept responding, “Yes.”
At least six times that I remember, I went through this routine with a doctor – and that was just between my arrival in the ER, a trip to the exam room, and then being wheeled into the cath lab; a bit more than an hour, all told. Over the next day or so, I had the same conversation over and over, with other doctors and technicians, and all four of my stellar ICU nurses.
The response was always one of surprise, and clarification was always sought, accompanied by a glance at whatever clock or watch was handy. Turns out, I am something of an anomaly.
I listened to my body.
What I have come to learn from the excellent doctors and nurses who have been caring for me is that most people in my situation do not listen to their own bodies, and wait – sometimes too long – to take their situation seriously and seek medical attention.
I know this, because I asked, noting my surprise that doctors kept phrasing the question in terms of hours; “How many hours were you having this pain before you came in?” and seeing their surprise when I replied, “about forty-five minutes before I got here.”
I listened to my body.
The medical professional said that most people wait – either because of denial or fear. A quick bit of research on what the pros told me was easily confirmed; one NIH study I quickly found showed that 69% of heart attack patients had delayed seeking treatment for their symptoms. This quote from the NIH study: ‘The most important causes of having delay were: “hoping the symptoms to alleviate spontaneously”, “attributing the symptoms to other problems other than heart problems”, and “disregarding the symptoms”.’
I listened to my body.
I cannot imagine what would have happened had I not. Had I waited, or just blown everything off, or headed to St. Marks, the worst part would have hit somewhere else other than the ER. I would not have been two minutes away from a team of professionals, one of who immediately placed a nitroglycerin pill under my tongue and told me to hold it there. Had I not been in the Oschner ER when this episode escalated…?
I listened to my body.
Most people, faced with similar circumstances when it comes to their heart, apparently do not.
I am not writing or sharing this just to share my story; there are much better, more amusing, more curious parts of it to tell from a storytelling standpoint. I am sharing this because I was very fortunate, in large part because I realized that something wasn’t anywhere near right – even though I really didn’t feel ‘all that bad’ at the time.
I listened to my body.
Oh, and ignoring or downplaying heart symptoms is not just a stubborn-male attribute. One of the more interesting statistics I found when doing some basic research? Women are more likely than men to delay treatment.
Thankfully, I listened to my body.
I hope this encourages you to listen to yours, too.