ER Visit and Attendant Life Changes

Or, How Doctors Like to Scare the Shit Out of You.

So last Saturday, I had a pleasant enough day.  I drove to Napa, had lunch, drove the 1.5 hours up to Clearlake, CA, where my mother is buried, and left flowers on her grave, and then came home.  All in all I drove about 200 miles.

When I got home, I sat and tried to write for a time, then gave up on that and started to play some games.  At about 11:30 I decided I was tired, and stood up–and nearly doubled over in pain.

The pain was centered in my chest.  It wasn’t radiating, but it hurt.  Now, I’ve had a couple of scares with my heart.  In 2004 I suffered pericarditis for several days before going to the campus med center, then to the ER at their insistence.  In 2014 I discovered I have a recurring arrhythmia that causes atrial fibrillation, which is now controlled with medication.  But this didn’t feel like either of those things.  My wife was in Alaska, so I let her know what was going on and then called 911.  The ambulance that responded found my blood pressure was 190/130, which… yeah, that’s bad.  They took me to the ER, where I laid all night, awake.

In the morning they admitted me to a room.  The doctor who came in said he wanted to make sure I didn’t have an aortic tear, so they did a CT scan.  It came up clean.  He scheduled a stress test for the next day, because the CT contrast in my system made it impossible to do it safely that day.  But he assured me that the CT scan, and my EKG, meant I had not had a heart attack, but that they had to check some more things.

Two hours later, a cardiologist came in with the blood test results, and said it was possible I’d had a minor heart attack.  “You’re okay,” he assured me, “but we need to do an angiogram to make sure.”  They canceled the stress test and scheduled an angiogram for the next day.

Then the on-duty cardiac surgeon said “Fuck that, we’ll do it today,” and called his team in.  They whisked me away to do the angiogram.

Now, they’d done an angiogram in 2004, too, and it found my heart to be perfect, with no plaque and no blockages.  This time was slightly–but only slightly–different: there were still no blockages, but there was some plaque buildup–not enough to have caused my pain, though, and not needing any kind of intervention, but something to keep an eye on and address with some dietary changes.

So now they were left with another bout of pericarditis seeming to be the cause, so they got an echo-cardiogram.  And that clinched it: Pericarditis.  So they gave me medication for it and told me I would probably go home in the morning, if the pain went away.

Keep in mind that at this point, I’d been in fairly excruciating pain for 21 hours. This was partly my own fault for saying no to morphine.  The doctor pointed out that was stupid, so I took it.  It didn’t make the pain go away, but it made me float in my head.  But once they started the anti-inflammation meds, the pain faded away.

By Monday morning I was pain free.  I had barely slept, so I was cranky and irritable, but pain free.  They cut me loose at 10am and I went home.  My aunt came to stay with me until Elli and Tegan got back from Alaska (they’d tried to come home early but couldn’t).

And now I’m left sitting here pain free, but aware that I need to be kinder to my heart.  I’ve already been working on losing weight, but I’d begun to backslide on my diet.  Well, no more.  More fruits and vegetables, less fried food, less processed stuff.  My family is working on getting back to cooking more and eating together more.  I still need to lose about four inches on my waste, as well as my belly, and lose/exchange for muscle about 90 pounds.  It’s going to take hard work, and determination, but I’m going to do it.

Because yes, I was scared.  When the first cardiologist told me I’d had a heart attack, it shattered me.  I was sitting there alone, with my neighbour and his entire loud family laughing on the other side of the curtain while I was trying not to fall to pieces on mine.

My beloved grandmother, whom I called “Mimi” because I used to hold my hands up to her and say “Me! Me!” to get her to pick me up, died of a heart attack when I was four years old. She was only 50, but she smoked and she ignored advice from her doctor.  It has affected my entire life.  Two years later, my mother died of a combination heart attack and pneumonia at 25 years old.  So it’s not something that I’ve been unaware of, but my heart has always checked out as healthy even though I’ve gained a lot over the last decade.

But now it’s not enough to be okay.  I have a child, a ten year old, and while I can’t guarantee I’ll be here her whole life, I can’t check out because of something I could have prevented.  I’m not going to leave her talking to her memories of me because I was too proud to struggle at the gym, or because I’m too in love with bad food to give up Carl’s Jr. And I don’t want any possible grandchildren growing up now knowing me, either.  I want that lovely relationship Tegan had with my grandpa, and the one she has with her grandparents on Elli’s side and with her Nana and Papa, my aunt and uncle.   The loss of my grandmother and mother so young has been a shadow over my entire life.  I still sometimes break down in tears over it.  I refuse to do that to my child if I can help it.

I’m not stupid–I’m not going to give up all bad food, forever.  That’s not realistic.  But I’m going to be giving up most bad food forever, and the remaining stuff I’ll partake in only rarely.  But Carl’s?  Never again.  That shit’s just awful for you, and even I know it.  No more fast food lunches when the school year is going.  I’ll either make something in advance from home, or if I have to eat out, keep it healthy–and actual healthy, not “foot long sandwich that only pretends to be healthy.”

And I’m getting back to daily gym visits as soon as I’m cleared to do so, which is next week.

I can do it.  I must do it.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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