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Three years ago today, my sister-in-law snapped this picture of my husband and me. Despite having been through a very difficult two weeks, I looked perfectly healthy. But this could have been the last photo ever taken of me. Three hours later, I would have have a heart attack commonly called the Widowmaker, given that name because 90% of people who have it don’t survive.

When this picture was taken, I had no pain, but was already sweating profusely. I was clammy. Two hours later, I had what I thought was heartburn. I took antacids but it only grew worse. Lying down to sleep made it worse. I got up, still thinking it was heartburn, and ate a few crackers. I tried sleeping again but by then the pain in my chest was like a vise. I asked my husband to call an ambulance.

They arrived within minutes. By that time, I was feeling pain in my left shoulder, jaw, and arm, but my back was also in spasm, and I was sure that it was the main source of my problem. When the paramedics arrived, I was writhing in back pain and they began trying to work out the knot. It was only while in the ambulance that they suspected I was having a heart attack. And of course tests at the hospital confirmed that.

Three days later, I was stabilized and they performed an angiogram to check for blockages. Later, the nurses told me that they almost took bets among themselves as to whether or not I would need a stent. The doctor doing the procedure thought not. He was mistaken.

My LAD, the artery feeding two-thirds of my heart, was 95% blocked. I looked perfectly healthy and up to the week before, I had no idea that a problem existed. Neither did my GP.

LADIES, NEVER ASSUME THAT YOUR SYMPTOMS ARE INSIGNIFICANT, especially if they’re coming at the end of a particularly stressful period in your life.

(Women’s symptoms are often atypical. Some only experience fatigue (a month earlier, I’d nearly passed out while driving on the highway after a particularly stressful day at the hospital). Sometimes, women only experience discomfort in their back, usually between their shoulder blades).

gothic-1629448__340Yesterday I watched a young woman on Facebook suffer ridicule because she expressed genuine fear over a number of changes that have already been mandated by the new POTUS. She was articulate and measured in her speech. She did not criticize or name call, but simply asked one woman, a life coach/mentor, for advice in dealing with the anxiety she was feeling.

The mentor spoke calmly and gently about living in the present. She reminded the young woman that more often than not, life goes on as always and our greatest fears do not come to fruition. Without addressing any of the specific concerns the young woman mentioned, she did the best she could to smooth the waters.

A dozen or so people followed the same live video, but for the most part, their responses showed no such compassion or sensitivity. Instead, they mocked her, and joked among themselves about “her whining, and about having no use for people who were as soft as fluff.” They suggested she get a “helmet” and joked with each other about their willingness to fight.

It made me feel sick. What is happening to people?

If you study conflict resolution, the first things you learn is that you must show respect for the person with the opposing view. Whether you agree with them or not, whether you understand their feelings or not, you acknowledge the sincerity of those feelings and their inherent right to have them. You do not mock them, but try to get to the bottom of what is triggering their emotions. You try to find common ground – a common cause – and that in itself helps allay their fears.

Instead, what we are often seeing on FB, and what we’ve witnessed from the top on down in the new POTUS, is a kneejerk backlash against everything that has obviously angered some people for the past eight years. Many of them, freed from what they feel are the “shackles” of political correctness, are revelling in the novelty of saying whatever they want, exactly how they want. You can hear their glee, as if it’s a game. But to most of the rest of the world, it is terrifying. And it’s opposite to the values of respect and fair communication that we thought the States have always stood for. Were we wrong?

The real fear is how far this will go, which families will implode, and which mentally unstable people will grab this mania and take this even further, possibly to dangerous places. Neither “side” is safe. The hatred and tension are palpable. People must not assume that their prayers alone will magically keep the lid on this. God listens to prayers from countries all over the world, and still, for some reason, millions suffer. Americans are no more important than the people in Aleppo. Why would they think that their prayers will be answered first?

People need to wake up and feel a little bit of rational fear in their bellies. No country is immune to self-destruction.

 

snow-1848346_960_720Eighteen months with no writing. Eighteen months with very little talking, in fact. The words just aren’t always there when I need them.

It’s all part and parcel of fibromyalgia. Since my heart attack, I can’t rely on muscle relaxants and sleep meds as much as I did before. The result? Insomnia, very poor sleep when it finally does come, and a brain that’s not firing on all cylinders during my waking hours.

They say that your brain is like a muscle. It needs exercise. So here I am, trying to force this old brain to work a little more efficiently. It feels like I have a lot of catching up to do, like my grey matter has atrophied, but starting in 2017, I’m going to give writing another shot.

I have no choice really. If I’m lucky, I may live another twenty years, and I’d prefer to be able to still talk in full sentences when that time comes.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

Wow! Sixteen months since my last journal entry! Is it possible that some of my readers thought I died? It’s a logical conclusion.

The truth is that health concerns have monopolized my mind and time, and I was loathe to write about it, to give it even one more minute of my attention. Yet, I couldn’t really think about much else. My muse took up residence in a distant corner, put her feet up, pulled her hat down over her eyes and said “Wake me up when life returns to normal.” The truth is, it still hasn’t, and chances are it never completely will. Post heart attack, I am a very different person – but that’s a story for another time.

To bring some closure to the heart attack saga, I have to start by saying it was surreal. Once my pain was under control ( and for those of you who wonder what the pain felt like, the closest thing I can compare it to is the feeling you get if something icy is caught in your esophagus – think brain freeze, but in your chest, arm, neck and jaw), it was largely a matter of being closely monitored and medicated. On my second day, a young cardiologist came to speak to me. Part of me still had trouble believing their diagnosis. I’d been under a lot of stress for months. I’d suffered a personal loss. I had fibromyalgia, which mimicked a lot of other conditions. I’d read about something called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, commonly called “broken heart syndrome.” After all, I had gone through some scary episodes of chest pain when my mother dies 17 years earlier, and though a EKG initially indicated a heart attack, there was no indication that my heart had suffered any kind of true “event.”

Couldn’t that be what happened again?

He assured me that wasn’t the case this time. Blood work indicated the presence of enzymes that are a direct result of a heart incident. They were highest when I was admitted, then went down. But I’d had a little chest pain again the day before, and the markers had increased. There was no doubt that I’d suffered an attack. He told me that he wanted to do an angiogram to get to the cause. “That way,” he said, “perhaps we can get you another twenty years.”

It felt like those words were written in the boldest black marker. Twenty years? That was nothing! Twenty years was just yesterday! I wanted more than that ahead of me. I expected more. Until that day, I’d never really thought about my age. But I suddenly realized that from young doctor’s perspective, I WAS OLD. Shouldn’t living another twenty years be enough to satisfy me? Twenty years, as opposed to one or two years. What choice did I have?

They scheduled my angiogram for the next day. It hurt much more than I expected, the chest pain quite similar to my heart attack pain. Apparently that’s not typical. I learned later that the nurses and doctor who were to perform the test made bets between themselves that if I did have any kind of blockage, it would be minor. I seemed “too healthy.”How wrong they were! There, on the screen to the left of me, was proof of my attack, and just how serious it could have been. They explained that I had a 95% blockage in the LAD (left anterior descending artery). It feeds the largest portion of the heart. And because only 5% of people survive it, they have a nickname for it: THE WIDOWMAKER.

Experts say that a heart attack usually hits not when you are experiencing stress, but once you’ve relaxed: on Sunday mornings rather than at the mid-week board meeting; on the golf course more often than at your desk. And that’s how it happened with me. It came like a sniper.

I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. I’d had a few glasses of wine during the evening and enjoyed fruit and cheese and crackers. I’d laughed with friends and family as they good-naturedly music-jammed, and I’d even joined them at the microphone for a few minutes. It was a good night.

The only abnormality at all was that I was sweating profusely. My hair was soaked underneath and I spent half the night holding it up off of my neck.

We arrived home at around 1:30, and shortly afterwards I began to experience what I thought was simple indigestion. I had some pressure at my breastbone and even burped a little. I chewed two antacids, got ready for bed and waited for it to abate. It didn’t.

When I tried to lie down, the pain in the centre of my chest grew sharper. I have a hiatus hernia, so my first thought was that acid was rising up into my esophagus and causing a spasm. It’s happened to me before. I got up and walked around. I went downstairs, took a drink of water and sat on the couch with my computer. The pain was not as severe sitting up and at some point, I must have dosed off for a while. A sharp stab jolted me upright, and the pain of that movement made me realize this was not simply heartburn.

Very soon, I was aware of pain from my breastbone through to my spine, from the spine through my left side, both front and back, under my arm to my armpit, up my neck to my jaw and down my arm to my hand. I woke my husband and he immediately called an ambulance. It was 5:15 in the morning.

Despite calling an ambulance, I didn’t believe it was my heart. It felt like a mega muscle spasm, generating just under my left shoulder blade and twisting my entire left side out of shape. Having fibromyalgia, I’m prone to such things. While I waited for the ambulance, I writhed in pain, lifting my left arm up over my head, bending sideways and forwards to stretch out my back. My stomach cramped and I threw up. I was light-headed.

When the paramedics arrive, they too first suspected muscle spasms. One paramedic found a huge knot on the left side of my back. “Does this hurt?” he asked. I moaned with the pain.

Heart attack was the last thing on my mind or theirs, until my blood pressure took a rapid drop in the ambulance. Suddenly, everything changed. The ambulance siren kicked in, they gave me aspirin, nitroglycerine, and then an oxygen mask. It was all very surreal.

Once we arrived at the hospital, they wasted no time. There was a flurry of activity around me – EKG’s, blood tests, a constant monitor, and an IV administering blood thinners. I was in constant pain, making futile attempts to find a position where I didn’t hurt as much. The pain came in waves – a dull ache for a couple of minutes, followed crescendos where it stabbed at my breastbone and made it hard to breathe. The curtain in the emergency room cubicle was open, and people glanced at me as they walked by. I cared about nothing but the pain. Finally, a nurse injected me with something that helped, and a young doctor returned to check on me.

I expected to hear “you had a severe muscle spasm that’s now under control.” Instead I heard the words “you’ve had a heart attack. We’re admitting you.”

He may as well have told me that I was now living on Mars. It was that surreal.

heart_art_200_20071214093616I’ve come to realize that my writing is fueled by passion, not peace, by angst, not serenity. Otherwise, how do I explain the fact that I wrote my last entry here over ten months ago? It is either that, or my need for self-expression is being satisfied by Facebook, which would be really sad. In any case, there is something to be written about now, because it’s just too significant NOT to talk about. I need to process it, and my readers need to think about the implications for their own lives.

On January 18th, I came close to dying. It happened on the heels of an very emotionally difficult time, and there’s no doubt that the stress of it, along with the stress of the past seven or eight years, contributed to it. For now, I’ll concentrate on recent events.

Early in December, my elderly father, already an amputee, had a risky angioplasty to save his remaining leg. Seeing his frailty, my siblings and I began the difficult process of researching assisted-living facilities. We worried over the best way to approach him and get him onside. We agonized over him seeing it as a betrayal.

Shortly before Christmas, my youngest son was injured at a part-time construction job he’s taken while he’s back in school. The phone call came from inside the ambulance. All we knew was that a cross-saw had sliced through his wrist, and it was serious. Later, we learned he’d been lucky.  Though there was significant nerve damage, the saw missed the main artery and surgery could wait. We left the hospital, only to rush back fifteen minutes later when he had a serious allergic reaction to the medications they’d given him. My heart was in my throat. I didn’t even wait for the triage nurse – just pounded on the emergency doors to be let back in. I was terrified he’d go into anaphylactic shock. A swarm of nurses and doctors descended on him right away and within an hour, he was stabilized. By the time we got home, I was emotionally spent.

The rush of Christmas brings its own inherent stresses, but then a few days afterwards, my father fell ill. I was hosting a post-Christmas party and received a phone call from my brother saying the emergency room doctors wanted to know if Dad had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order.” I said yes. I had his POA for health matters, and panicked when I couldn’t find the original form to take to the hospital. My cousin and his wife drove us to the hospital, forty-five minutes away, and stayed with us until the wee hours of the morning.

Less than two weeks later, after positive signs then steps backwards, and many hours spent at his beside, Dad died. We were heartbroken and in many ways, stunned. The decline came so quickly. He’d always bounced back before, and we thought he would live forever.

We lived the next few days in an auto-pilot haze, planning the funeral and spending time with family in the evenings. Everything went smoothly, and we reconnected with many people we hadn’t seen in years. I was sad and I felt numb. I was also tired and weak, but I put that down to stress and lack of sleep. Everyone else felt exactly the same way. Sleep should help, I thought.

And it did. Wednesday and Thursday I did little else. By Friday, I felt much better. While family members were in town, we gathered at our dad’s home to choose sentimental favourites among the dishes our mom left behind. It went well – very few tears and no conflicts. Then we headed out to one sister’s home for a final gathering before others would have to fly home. It would be a “music night,” with lots of instruments and singing. We all needed to let loose and feel alive again. Dad would have approved.

I had no way of knowing that a major roadblock was waiting for me around the next corner.

 

MAKE A WISH

cute-baby-25The birthday balloon is tethered to the top of a table lamp.
No longer taut, it sways seductively,
its “Make A Wish” message calling to me
as the helium hisses a slow escape.

There is much to wish for as one grows older
but my one wish is simple.
Let me live long enough to see our sons
with families of their own.

Their happiness would fill my heart to overflowing.
And oh, to have a granddaughter,
so that I can finally experience some
of what I so sorely missed with my own baby girl.

Such joy. My birthday wish.