A few years back I wrote a column for the ShoreLine Times called Enough Said. I loved sharing my fits and family foibles with readers. A while ago I retired the column. Recently, during a very scary medical crisis, I encountered a reader who remembered and loved my writing. I thought that perhaps an update might be in order.
Sharing my life so openly has always been a privildge and never a problem. From health, to the humanity of life, writing about how much we all have in common is freeing. That’s why I wanted to tell my story. The following is how I recall the early morning events of barely a month ago.
I had a heart attack.
That’s like saying I had a baby and it’s just as life changing. At least kids move out, the aftereffects of my heart attack will physically and emotionally be with me for the rest of my life.
It happened at 3 a.m. because things like mortality slapping you in the face always happen in the middle of the night? When I think back to when it started I now know that if I had waited 5 minutes more my husband would have awakened at 5 a.m., like he usually does, only to find my lifeless body lying next to him. I would have been dead for about two hours.
If I had waited 5 minutes more I would not have been able to quickly dress, walk down the stairs and out to the car. We live only a few miles from a large modern 24-hour emergency clinic. At the time waiting for an ambulance did not make sense.
When I woke I felt a strange but not uncomfortable sensation centered high in my chest. For the past few days I had experienced that feeling on and off while assuming I was coming down with a slight chest cold. But it didn’t feel like a cold. Maybe indigestion but it didn’t feel like indigestion either. It didn’t feel like anything I had experienced before. It wasn’t painful — it was just odd.
As I lay beside my husband in the dark, with the strange feeling high in my chest, my left arm began to tingle. I must have been sleeping on my side, I thought.
I remained motionless so I wouldn’t wake my husband. I’ll deep breathe, I thought, I’ll fall back asleep. The significance regarding the subtlety of slight chest discomfort and tingling arm as a heart attack was not lost on me at that moment. Women’s symptoms are usually more subtle than men’s. No elephant sitting on my chest, no debilitating pain. Only two things happening and explainable as something else. That I had few risk factors did not mean I was free of the possibility of dying from a heart attack but I didn’t think about that then. I simply wanted to let my husband sleep. I did not want us to rush to the clinic at 3 a.m. only to be told that chewing a chalky antacid was all I needed.
I’ll lie here 5 more minutes and let it pass, I thought. And then, oh so gently, the tingling drifted up my left arm to my neck. Three odd and unexplainable things were going on.
I elbowed my husband awake, we dressed. As I walked outside to the car I remember thinking it’s a good thing I didn’t hesitate because walking to the car was difficult. We raced to the Middlesex Shoreline Clinic in Westbrook. I was terrified.
When I think back on that short ride I remember shouting at my husband, “I love you. Tell the kids how much I love them and please don’t let our grandchildren forget me.” My husband shouted back that I’d be fine and to shut up calm down.
“But our grandkids are so little, they won’t remember me.” That he again nervously shouted back to shut up and calm down makes me smile now.
What happened next became a blur of, thank god we left when we did and thank God I live where I live. It took only a few minutes to be quickly evaluated by Dr. S. Davlaire and her team at the clinic, treated for transport, and transferred by a lights and sirens blaring ambulance, to Yale in New Haven.
In the ambulance I sunk deep into my mind and asked myself three questions:
Have I done what I have wanted to do and gone where I have wanted to go? Yes.
Any regrets? No.
Am I leaving behind anything that would sour my family’s memories of me? No. Dust under the bed doesn’t count.
My initial terror was gone. I was not afraid but curious as to the process unfolding before me. I thought, if I am about to die what miracles might I discover on the other side. As I lay there being gently jostled down the highway at high speed I was at peace with my life as I have lived it. I found great comfort in that.
At Yale a cath-lab team was set up and waiting for me to arrive. Six stents were inserted in my three blocked arteries. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to realize that at 3 a.m., as I lay beside my sleeping husband, I was mere minutes from passing away.
Coming so close to death does something to people. I know it has to me. Sunshine on the melting snow the afternoon I came home from the hospital was breathtaking and never so beautiful. Though I have always realized how lucky I’ve been to have lived the life I’ve lived I realize that it’s more than luck, it is divine.
I believe my passage would have been a gentle one. I’ve since learned that its wake would have created a wave of grief I am only now beginning to understand. After someone dies I know that everyone eventually goes on with their lives. After deaths in my family, I have. I just hoped I would be remembered kindly and with smiles not tears. By my young grandchildren, I simply hoped to be remembered. The knowledge that I am liked and loved and cherished, creates a mark on my world the likes of which I never would have known if I had waited 5 minutes more.
As I write this, a little over a month later, I am occasionally overtaken by emotion which I am told is typical. I feel good, walk a couple of miles a day and am back into my routine. After a nasty bout with a medication that didn’t like me, I no longer live with caution tinged with fear.
I find it curious that since leaving the hospital every woman, (and I mean every single woman I have met), from the lady in line behind me at Big Y overhearing my conversation with the cashier, to neighbors, friends, family, (again, every single woman), has asked me, “what did it feel like.”
We are told that as females our symptoms may be different than males. My advice: learn the signs, listen to your body and act quickly. We are not invincible. We will die someday. I thought I understood that. Now I know it.
My symptoms were classic, the denial real, and the realization that waiting would have been deadly affects me. Now if I wake late at night, I first I listen to my inner me. And then I say a little prayer to a God I haven’t seriously thought about or spoken to in a long time.
Thanks, I whisper in the dark, for giving me 5 minutes more.
Carolyn Pianta is a former columnist for the ShoreLine Times.