My Big Fat Geek Heart Attack

As I’ve previously referenced, a couple of months ago I had a heart attack. Sunday, August 5, 2018, to be precise. There I was, mowing the lawn. We have a postage stamp of a yard, nothing strenuous. It was a hot and humid outside, but far from the hottest day of the summer. In fact, a few weeks earlier I’d helped my friend Bill move, which was several hours of strenuous work that went just fine. But that Sunday when I finished mowing and came inside, I felt a bit off. I hadn’t had much for lunch, though, so I brushed it off. I was going to have a shower and a snack.

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What I saw on my iPhone.

After the shower I was sweating a little, but that’s not unusual in the summer with humidity and such. But after I’d gotten some cold water and was sitting in front of a fan in the nice cool basement, the sweating not only didn’t stop, it got worse. Then I had some discomfort in my chest. That’s when I wondered, Is sweating a heart attack symptom?

So after a few seconds of minor chest pain and flop sweat, I Googled chest pain and sweating. All the hits were heart attack. I went upstairs, sat down in the living room, and told Sandra, my wife, that I was having a heart attack. She got me an aspirin and called 911.

Then came the longest ten minutes of my life, the time between the call and when the ambulance arrived, as the chest pains ramped up. Hearing the siren in the distance was a relief, but then it seemed to go on forever. When will they get here? But once the paramedics arrived, I relaxed, because now I had professionals taking care of me. At least, that’s how it felt subjectively. The paramedics told me a few times to relax and breathe normally, and Sandra has said that I had a panic attack. But I didn’t feel like I was freaking out and gasping for breath. Inside my own head, I was just sitting there, concerned certainly, but everything seemed to be moving at a calm pace. It’s weird to hear about such a disconnect between your own perceptions and what people around you saw.

Here’s something else funny in retrospect: I was sweating so much—picture walking through a car wash—that the electrodes for the EKG wouldn’t stick to my skin. They had to ask Sandra for a towel! They got me hooked up eventually, and I was even able to walk to the stretcher they had outside the front door.

The ride to the hospital seemed to take a long time, but the guys kept talking to me, reminding me to breathe normally, and I got four chewable aspirin and some nitro. There was an eye of the storm when the pain receded, but when it came back it was worse. I told them the pain was getting bad, but they told me we were just fifteen seconds out from the hospital.

Once there I was quickly rolled inside. I only saw a few people in the room other than the paramedics before I closed my eyes and concentrated on controlling my breathing during the pain. I got some sweet, sweet morphine, and opened my eyes as the pain faded. There now was maybe ten people in the room arrayed around me. I almost started laughing. “There’s a lot more of you here,” I said.

Sandra was there soon, and there was lots of stuff going on. EKGs, a second IV in my other arm, a chest X-ray, and then I was being prepped for the stent procedure which, since it’s done through the femoral artery, involves being shaved in embarrassing areas south of the border, shall we say.

After that, but before I was taken to the cath lab, my daughter, Ella, arrived from the Minnesota Fan Fusion convention, where she’d just gotten a fab photo of Gimli from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings signed by the actor John Rhys-Davies. She thought I was weird casually asking to see the photo while lying there with a dozen wires connected to me, but I found it relaxing to just talk about our normal geeky stuff.

Then I was whisked away toward the cath lab. As I lay on the stretcher watching the ceiling tiles and lights roll by overhead, I held up my hands with thumbs at right angles, creating a frame, director style. “It’s like that shot you always see in the movies and TV,” I said. I could hear Ella behind me say, “Oh my god.” It was satisfying to still be able to provoke a classic daughter response under the circumstances.

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My room in the ICU.

In the cath lab, the doctor said, “We’re putting a numbing agent on your leg.” I was lying there looking up at the large robotic arm of the fluoroscope above me, wondering if it took a while for the numbing agent to kick in. Time passed in the surreal way it does
during these sorts of things, the robot arm moved this way and that, but I wasn’t even sure if things had started yet. “Where are we in the procedure?” I asked. The doctor said, “I’ve placed two stents and I’m going to do two more.” Holy crap! Without me even knowing, she’d already inserted two stents in an artery of my heart.

Soon I was rolling again, this time to the ICU. I was feeling pretty good. Just a few hours earlier we’d called the ambulance, now I was settled into my room with four shiny new stents, three in one artery, the fourth in another. Over the night and next day, blood tests and an ultrasound showed that my heart hadn’t suffered any damage. I was sent home that Tuesday afternoon, after just two nights in the hospital.

Reflecting back on the whole misadventure, I later realized that I never really felt afraid for my life. I think that’s because my mom, dad, and an uncle have all survived heart attacks. Also, the pain I felt came nowhere near the level of what I’ve heard other heart attack survivors describe. Although much of that day is a kind of muted blur, I think my basic reaction was, well, we called 911, I’ll go to the hospital, and I’ll get fixed (which was why I was most worried during the wait for the ambulance). To be clear, I’m not saying that this was a rational response . . . whether it was my trust in modern medical science, my stoic upbringing, or just dumb luck, I don’t know, but on top of everything else, I’m glad I didn’t experience a big serving of existential dread. (One can get enough of that just from the headlines, am I right?)

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Walking around our neighborhood in the days after coming home.

Now I have my fancy a.m./p.m. pillbox to sort my meds, we’re making some changes in our diet, making sure I get out and walk more, all the usual stuff, including some outpatient rehab. I dodged a bullet, really. I may not have thought “I’m going to die,” but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a wake-up call for the rest of my life. And I’ll tell you a doctor’s phrase I learned during all this: “Time is tissue.” Every second counts, and the longer you go without treatment the more potential damage. So don’t mess around if you think you’re having a heart attack, pick up that phone! There are highly trained wizards of science out there ready and waiting to bring all the powers of modern medicine to your aid. You’ll be forever grateful to them, trust me.

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