Yes. I was so young, thirty-three years old. Yes, I was in good shape but there it was.
It came in the middle of the night,- 11:42pm to be exact.I woke with a piercing pain in my left shoulder. Thinking I had slept in a bad position, I shifted onto my back to get the blood flowing again. It was then I noticed that my ten-year-old daughter had managed to shimmy into my bed without waking me. I lay there quietly, waiting for the pain to subside. It didn’t. It got worse. I tried deep breathing. The pain increased. I looked at the clock; it was 11:44pm. I thought, “this isn’t good, something is wrong, what am I-“and then stopped short, remembering that for the first time in several years, I had health insurance. I could go to the doctor if it was serious.
Relief was short-lived. I slid out of bed as quietly as possible, planning to take something, get a drink of water, and maybe lie on the sofa for awhile so I wouldn’t wake my daughter. When I tried to stand, the left side of my body gave way. The pain went from a “wow, that is really, really uncomfortable” to “all of your insides have turned to molten lava and you are being attacked by Freddy Krueger and Edward Scissorhands and there’s a huge blood pressure cuff around your chest and Nurse Ratcheted is in charge.” And I couldn’t much move my left arm.
Did I call 911? No, I didn’t. I made it a few steps to my dresser and using my right hand, pulled out a better-looking set of pajamas, a good bra and nice underwear. What? Didn’t your mother tell you to always wear nice underthings in case of a car accident? I couldn’t manage the bra, much to my consternation.
Then I called 911, right? No. I dragged myself to the bathroom, where I managed to brush my hair, put on a headband, suck on some toothpaste and spritz a little perfume on. Ever heard of a show called ER?
And THEN I called 911, right? No. I dialed a number better than any ambulance service. I called Momma and Daddy and for good reason. One, my parents lived a half mile from my house and two, if I called an ambulance it would freak my daughter out and she would have to go to the hospital with me and that wouldn’t work and finally, $500 for an ambulance ride.
My mother is not a person you want to wake up unless it is really, really important. Daddy and I used to flip a coin as to who had to wake her up from her weekend naps. She is never, ever happy about being awoken. It took a very long minute for my mother to wake up enough to realize this wasn’t a dream and I was asking for a ride to the hospital, not asking for a ride home from a party.
At this point, the pressure on my chest was such that I couldn’t catch my breath and the pain had grown more intense at its locus in my shoulder and was radiating further throughout my body. I now actively wished for my left arm to fall off. A picture of my great-grandmother, lying in a hospital bed, twisted and wasted after her stroke, flashed through my mind.
I went back to my room, kissed my still-sleeping daughter, grabbed my book bag – because I might need something to read, obviously – put on my slippers and started to make my way to the den to wait for my parents. My mom was walking in the back door by the time I made it there. I was dragging my bag on the floor, my bra flapping uselessly under my (cute, matching) pajama top, shoulder straps around my elbows. Apparently, I did not look well. Her face turned white. “I can’t get my bra on” is all I remember saying.
The lingerie problem taken care of, I was shuttled into the car, Daddy at the wheel. The dashboard clock read 11:50. We started the short drive to the hospital, Daddy driving at a moderate but still illegal speed. “What’s wrong?” “Daddy…it hurts,” I said, gasping for air. He stomped on the accelerator and we made the last of the five-mile ride in less than three minutes. He squealed to a stop in front of the ER, and in a few seconds, out he came with a wheelchair, a nurse hot on his heels. Daddy does not mess about. The clock read 11:54. As Daddy was helping me out of the car, she asked me what was wrong, half-bored, half-annoyed. I didn’t know at the time there were magic phrases one could use in the ER, phrases that would get you immediate and impressively efficient attention. I looked her in the eye and croaked out one of them, “chest pain”. She snapped to attention and everything, it seemed, changed in that instant.
The subsequent hours held many other firsts – catheters and morphine come to mind. Honestly, most of it is a blur, a blessed blur of highly medicated nothingness punctuated by moments of desperate panic and petty annoyances. Things got better and then got worse and got better again. More cardiac events followed. I will write more about that later. For now, the important thing to know is that I survived and that my zombie apocalypse-earthquake bug-out bag includes lip gloss and perfume. Unlike the firsts I mentioned earlier, I didn’t choose this one. It chose me. I’m still trying to make my peace with that. On the upside, how many people do you know can begin a story with “after my first heart attack”?