I went to the hospital ER for the FOURTH time with what turned out to be a heart problem. On each of the three previous trips, I was told that my heart was "strong." Turns out, it was strong, but it was also being strangled by blockages.
Here's what I did NOT have:
- Pain in my chest
- Crushing pressure in my chest
- Pain in my left arm
What I DID have:
- Gripping tightness in my throat from my chin to my collarbone, with an accompanying breathlessness
- Searing pain on the entire left side of my face--though it developed only in the last two or three weeks before my diagnosis
I had all the appropriate cardiac tests over the last several years, but until three months ago, I had not been given an angiogram. Each time I mentioned the throat episodes to my doctor, she reviewed the records that included wearing a Holter monitor, two cardiac echo tests, a Thallium stress test, EKGs, normal cholesterol, normal triglycerides, and controlled blood sugar. She would reassess my medications, maybe adjusting the blood pressure medication. Surely, everyone reasoned, the tightness in my throat was some sort of esophageal spasm. So, I had an esophageal study. Then I was tested for asthma. It seemed that they were trying, but the message I got was that nothing serious was going on, and it must be some sort of stress or maybe it was all in my head. Angry that maybe I had been labeled hypochondriac, I would resolve to tough it out--whatever IT was.
I had started reassuring myself that my symptoms did NOT match the five minute rule so often touted as a reason to go to the emergency room: Pain in the chest that lasts for more than five minutes. I could make my symptoms go away in three or four minutes, simply by sitting down and forcing myself to take a few deep breaths. Because I had been told so often that I was probably having some sort of spasm, I had also started making myself a warm beverage--coffee or tea or even just warm water. On bad days, I often made ginger tea. By the time I finished my warm drink, everything would always be better; and I would go on with my day.
Then the evening of Oct. 5, I decided to go to the emergency room one more time. I had shaken off my symptoms three times that day, and I was feeling particularly tired on that rainy, dreary day. Though not really nauseated, I had been unenthusiastic about supper--maybe feeling just a little queasy. After eating, I had gone back to work on my computer. What I really wanted was to go home and sleep it all off, but I had that often-referred-to feeling of unease. I knew, deep down, that something was wrong. Or at least, I thought I knew, though it was easy to talk myself out of the conviction. I alerted my husband and then talked myself out of going to the hospital three times, before I finally decided to go and get the trip over with. I figured they would run a few tests, as always, and we would be home by midnight. This trip was different, though. The doctor on duty that night was convinced that it was my heart. "The tests don't show it, but this just has to be your heart," he told me more than once as he ordered tests to rule out other possibilities. "Yours is the best story I've heard all year."
I was admitted overnight for observation and subsequently scheduled for an angiogram the next day. Before the scheduled angiogram, though, blood tests started showing elevated cardiac enzymes. I had, indeed, suffered a heart attack. When, I don't know for sure--before I went to the hospital, while they were doing tests, or during the night. I ended up having quadruple coronary bypass surgery on my "strong" heart. I had blockages of 100%, 90%, 80%, and two 60%, and I was alive only because I had developed collateral circulation around the severe blockages. That collateral circulation was proof that my heart had been struggling for years. Years during which I had only the one symptom of gripping tightness in my throat.
Stress tests, even the highly-touted Thallium stress tests, give false negatives 15% of the time. I was among that group. I passed the echo tests and all the other tests, until they did an angiogram.
So here is the take-away, especially for women: Know your own body. If you are afraid something is wrong, don't bet your life on everything being alright. Don't talk yourself into the morgue. When you believe something is wrong, it probably is. Trust your own instincts, even when common sense seems to be telling you to just tough it out. If I had not developed face pain, I might not have gone to the hospital that fourth time, and they might not have taken me seriously. When you go to the hospital, speak up and don't be afraid to tell them that you think it is your heart. I only did that once--the fourth time I went to the ER, but I had feared for years that it was my heart.
Once again, I apologize to those who have already heard my story. I plan to save someone's life by retelling it. Pass this on to a woman you love, or re-read it for yourself... I, by the way, am back to working a 10 to 12 hour day and running my company. Surgery was just a blip in the road, and I have been reborn! I'm loving life, and I want to share it.
Update: In the year following my heart surgery, I had several heart issues, including another heart attack. I still have never had chest pain or pressure. I'm fine now, but the cardiologist warned me that my symptoms might be different the next time--and they were. My primary symptoms now seem to be nauseau and slight sweating (dewy, not wet, just dewy). I also have had upper gastric pain above the belly button. Gas pain usually occurs lower in the abdomen, but please take any gastric pain seriously. The most important take-away is that it's better to risk a false alarm in the ER than it is to risk a fatal mistake.