There are two versions of this story.
The short one is this:
I thought I was having a heart attack. I went to the hospital in an ambulance. I stayed in the hospital for just under 24 hours. I had a lot of tests run. I didn’t have a heart attack.
The long one is this:
At one point this past Monday, with a Twilight Zone-like dissociative objectivity, I lay on a stretcher, looked down at my round belly covered with electrodes and wires and thought, “I look like a sticker-bombed VW Beetle.”
It wasn’t a normal day.
Normal days hold dirty laundry, Costco, coffee, salty Offspring, a slightly distracted spousal unit and a dog whose ONLY goal in life is to get me to play fetch. Slightly abnormal days include equine vet visits, a 1949 Packard named Bessie who breaks down whenever and wherever the hell she wants, picking paint colors for the interior of a vintage camper, too much coffee, super salty Offspring, a completely distracted spousal unit and a dog eating his own vomit.
This day held none of that. It didn’t even hold the dog and a tennis ball, although he had eaten his own vomit and the distracted spousal unit was present, distractedly trying to not freak out. This day held things called nuclear medicine, stress tests, echocardiogram, bloodletting, ultrasounds, did I mention radioactive nuclear stuff, RN, MD, NPO, EEG, EKG, IV, MI, ED, ISOS and WTF this feels like a BFD.
It was a seriously abnormal day.
Which followed a seriously abnormal night. Which came after a fairly normal day. It was Sunday. A good Sunday. Man Child and Spousal Unit moved a few of Man Child’s things from Sketchy College Apartment Complex while I stayed home and continued my unending and unsurprisingly inefficient effort to organize our home. Multi-tasker that I am, I also watched NCIS reruns. Girl Child was returning from a horse show where she had helped out friends since her beast remains “off” because of an abscess in her foot. Yes, it’s as gross as it sounds.
All. Quite. Normal. We sat down to dinner, like the good Americans we are, in front of the television. We were going to watch the movie, “The Family Fang.” The book’s author graduated from the same writing program I attended. However, he has been successful and Nicole Kidman liked the book so much she made a movie of it. Both book and movie are beyond reproach.
Unlike good Americans, we were enjoying a healthy dining experience. Spousal Unit provided expertly seared tuna and we made a Caprese salad, along with vinegar cucumbers and a side of rice. It was going to be topped off with Key Lime Pie. Before Baxter Fang could be shot in the head with a potato cannon, I was clutching my chest and lower neck and nodding to Girl Child that yes, indeed, calling 911 was probably a good idea.
I had been innocently chomping down on perfectly seared tuna when suddenly, my throat constricted. I started hiccupping. I tried to stay calm and breathe. I could cough, so I knew I wasn’t choking. I stood up. I sat down. “Something’s not right.”
Girl Child dialed the magic number and talked to the operator, “I think my mom is having a heart attack.” I felt a wave of guilt. Our job is to worry about our kids, not to make them worry about us. I could hear her answering questions and giving descriptions. The operator asked for her to take my pulse. She handed the phone to her brother and ran to grab my blood pressure cuff, which also takes a pulse. So does my Apple Watch, but I didn’t have it on. Note to self: keep Apple Watch on wrist even if it makes a weird tan line.
Man Child continued answering the operator’s questions, as he went down the list of signs of cardiac arrest for a female. The answers were all affirmative. Man Child remained calm, but I imagine there are more fun ways for a college kid to spend a Sunday evening. Spousal Unit ran upstairs and brought down the appropriate amount of baby aspirin. My family kicks ass in a crisis.
I texted my neighbor across the street. “Please don’t freak out, but an ambulance is on its way. I’m having chest pain.” Obviously I wasn’t thinking clearly in that we live in a close-knit neighborhood on a dead end street. Why did I think an ambulance and fire truck would only be seen by her?
A brigade of paramedics and firefighters paraded into the den. Oh hell, I have balsamic vinegar on my shirt. Double hell, I didn’t shower after working in the yard. Triple hell, I have no shoes on my scummy fungal-toenailed feet. They brought in more equipment than a pyrotechnics truck for the Rolling Stones and pulled out wires, plugs and tubes, attaching them to me. I became a middle-aged version of tentacle porn.
Everybody’s eyes were glued to the machine at the end of the wires. Damn. That is some high blood pressure. The brigade asked us what had happened. We took turns repeating what we told to the 9-1-1 operator. We would repeat those details so many times in the next 20 hours that the words lost meaning. Like awesome, literally, totally and farm-to-table. Those words mean so little these days.
I looked up from the readout and there was my neighbor, a top-o-the-line-runs-the-freaking-department cardiologist. He and his wife were hosting a party for cardiology residents. He should have been pouring wine at his gorgeous home while young doctors sucked up to him. Instead, he was standing behind the paramedics and beside Spousal Unit. He gave me that “It’s gonna be okay” look.
The chief paramedic, whom I sure has a better title than that, explained to me what they were doing and what they saw. These guys do this every day. They see everything. I asked them if they knew our favorite Nashville firefighter. “The cabinet guy?” he asked. “He makes cabinets or something?”
Yeah. Him. We love him. Every cabinet in this house was made by him. You should see the kitchen cabinets. They’re beautiful. These guys are attaching wires to me with their looks vacillating between resting bitch face and this dame is nuts face and I’m trying to give house tours? What I didn’t say was, “You guys are doing great, but I really wish Danny were here right now. He’s more than a cabinet guy. He’s kinda like a brother.”
What I did say probably didn’t make much sense. I tried to be funny, but failed miserably. Apparently, gallows humor isn’t funny when you’re the one standing on the scaffold with a noose around your neck. The wife of our cardiologist neighbor was funny though. She came in the room and made a joke about me crashing her party. Her husband shushed her. I mumbled, “I thought she was funny.” Obviously, she knows me and knew what I needed. I hope she knows she said the exact right thing at the exact right time. I hope she also knows I’m already planning on ways to crash her next party. This one’s gonna be hard to top.
The guys started packing up their gear and I realized we’d passed the point of no return. We had surpassed “Maybe it’s just gas” or “Take an antacid to see if it helps.” Girl Child packed my purse for me. She deserves a college scholarship for thinking on her feet. She grabbed my medicines and the list I keep of them. Later, at the hospital she brought me an overnight bag, sacrificing her favorite Kanken backback, and filling it with a clean shirt, underwear, my computer and chargers for it, my phone and watch. Next time she’ll remember a toothbrush.
I left the room, I left the house trying to make sure that everybody there knew I was going to be okay and that I love them. Meanwhile, neighbor cardiologist made sure I knew I was okay and his wife made sure I knew she loves me. We go back a long way. We will love one another until we die.
I walked out the front door to a gurney on the sidewalk, a fire engine and an ambulance on the street and a dozen or so neighbors hovering. I know a lot of people have great neighborhoods, but I challenge anybody to say they have better neighbors than I. Still, even with my best beauty queen wave as I climbed aboard the gurney, it was embarrassing. After all, I had balsamic vinegar on my shirt and I hadn’t had a shower. I did have on shoes, thanks to my Prince Charming shoving uncooperative canvas chuckies onto my feet. Who needs a glass slipper when they have Converse?
Paramedics lifted me into the ambulance and I recalled to them that my worst nightmare is becoming the patient who is the featured story at their Thanksgiving tables. My cousin (he of Flying Asshole fame) was a paramedic for two decades. Our extended family choked down our turkey dinners while being regaled with stories of patients who were so large that their underwear had to be cut out of the folds of flesh or doors had to be removed to get them through the house. As they heaved me into the ambulance, my guys assured me they’d seen worse.
The five minutes or so of waiting in the ambulance while everybody prepared was the worst of the entire experience. I felt a weird, sinking feeling, much like when my blood pressure plummeted after I was given too much juice in my c-section epidural. It felt as if I were being swallowed into the gurney. “I feel weird,” I said. They got a barf bag. I tried to explain it wasn’t nausea. I couldn’t find the words. My tongue felt thick. I felt stupid. Slow. Scared. I. Was. So. Damn. Scared.
A cloud burst overhead and rain poured down, so the paramedics closed the ambulance doors and continued procedures. Spousal Unit’s car pulled up behind the ambulance and sat waiting. I could see the wipers swinging across his windshield, but couldn’t see him. I knew he was scared also. I do all the important stuff, like make sure the Keurig machine makes it to horse shows and I pick up Man Child when Bessie breaks down. There is one more year of parent teacher conferences remaining. I should stick around just a bit longer. I knew he needed reassurance that I would be okay. Hell, I needed reassurance that I would be okay, so I gestured to him in a way that transcended time, space, closed ambulance doors and a rainstorm. I flipped him the bird.
We pulled out and up the street, past my amazing neighbors, a crashed party and the asphalt on which Man Child drove his go-cart made from a ruined futon up and down and up and down, followed by a motorized bike he built, followed by Bessie. Our neighbors are saints.
Ambulance rides aren’t as much fun as one would imagine. It’s quiet. Eerie. The drive from our house to St. Thomas is a short one and I knew each turn and curve. I could see Spousal Unit behind us. Sorry Sweetie. I really am a pain in the ass, aren’t I? First I make you buy horses for the Girl Child and antique cars for the Man Child and a beat up old camper for me, then I go and do this. Mea culpa, dude.
There is no waiting when one arrives at the hospital in an ambulance with the magic words called “chest pain.” The paperwork will come later. Let’s hook you up. Tell us what happened. Tell us again. And again. Who needs waterboarding when simply asking the same questions over and over again will get somebody to confess to anything. “What do you want me to say? Yes!!! We Googled symptoms for a woman having a heart attack. We did!” we scream and then whimper, “But it was the same list the 9-1-1 operator used. Honestly.”
One doc looked down at the paperwork and sideglanced us. “You went down the list of symptoms you saw after you Googled heart attack.” She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t trust Dr. Google,” she sang. With each subsequent telling, our story got shorter and shorter. After enough sleep deprivation and interrogation, I was monosyllabic. “Throat tight. BP high. Chest pain. Arm numb.”
The staff member would nod, take notes and answer, “And your family Googled heart attack symptoms, right?”
By the time I was discharged, I felt like a Kardashian. “Yes, TMZ, I posed for a photo session with my huge ass receiving the contents of a bottle of champagne, but I did NOT use cold duck. I don’t care what anybody says.” Even custodians were looking me up and down as they wiped the floor boards and I imagined them whispering to the x-ray techs, “You know her family Googled YouTube zit-popping videos when she started showing symptoms, right?”
I don’t remember how long we were in the Emergency Department. Long enough that Offspring sent us a picture of the dog eating his vomit. Long enough that Offspring came and went, bringing the overnight bag and telling us about the dog eating his vomit. Long enough that I had to pee a couple of times. One nurse allowed me to unhook from my tentacles and go; the next nurse pulled in a porta potty. I curled my nose like my Mother always did at gas station restrooms and pronounced as she would, “I’m not using that.” The young, male nurse looked at me. He would be easy to intimidate, so I gave him my best Pat Summit stare, God rest her soul. She lives on, but apparently not in me. He wasn’t swayed and stared back. “I can hold it,” I announced as if I had won the battle.
I’m not a super private person. I’ve written about my fungal toenails falling off in swim class and I’ll tell anybody about the time I mooned the Marshall football team. However, when I go potty, I go potty alone. Guess what doesn’t happen in the hospital when one is admitted for chest pain? Granted, the nurse allows some privacy, standing right outside the door whilst one is doing the pee pee thing, but because the nurse is standing right outside the door, the pee pee thing is hard to come by. I would lie in bed, my eyes watering and my bladder fuller than a tick on a dog’s ear. The nurse would come in and unhook me and follow me to the john. I’d slip the door closed and…well…drip. Dribble. Drip. I tried to think wet thoughts. Imagine waterfalls. The rain outside the ambulance doors. Drip.
That was a long night. I befriended the night nurse. We know about a million people together. Nashville is SUCH a small town. (Get outa here you hoards of carpet baggers! We LIKE it like just the way it is! Harrumph! Get off my metaphorical lawn!) That was one cool nurse and an even better human being. We’re Facebook friends now.
The night shift doc came in. He has an official name, nocturnalist? Hospitalist? Even though I hadn’t slept, couldn’t sleep, I was groggy and out of it enough that I thought I was in Middle Earth and Frodo had come to say hi when this round-faced fellow came in. Dr. Hobbit asked me what happened. I gave him the Cliff Notes version while I tried to peek over the side of the bed to see what his feet looked like. By this time, blood work had ruled out a heart attack and I was deliriously ready for a spa treatment.
I’m kind of an idiot that way. During my years in the trenches of room mom, horse show mom, he invented WHAT mom, you forgot WHAT mom, I have often dreamt of some sort of oasis, a break from the chaos and responsibility. So that I wouldn’t feel guilty in my fantasy, I imagined that oasis came in the form of a heart attack and hospital stay. I would HAVE to relax. I would HAVE to eat healthy. I would HAVE to lie back and take care of myself. And then the cardiac rehab department would fetch me and say, “Time for exercise dearie. Let’s go down to the gym.” It would be an all-expense Blue Cross Blue Shield paid trip to the health spa.
Go ahead and take a minute or twelve to laugh. Wipe the tears from your eyes and change your underwear. I know. It’s okay. I’m very aware. I have the bruised arms and continued sleep deprivation to prove that now I know better. Hospital stay is to health spa as Bonnaroo is to beach vacation.
Dr. Hobbit left and I actually slept, for about an hour. Then it was morning shift change and my new friend went home. Somebody brought by a personal care buffet that was carefully laid out on the bathroom sink that included deodorant and thank the good Lord above, a toothpaste and toothbrush. There were some snazzy looking red tube socks that had smiley -aced skid pads on either side. I had a new nurse I could ask to unhook me and stand by the door like a Secret Service agent while I peed. “Queen Tentacle is on the throne. I repeat, Queen Tentacle is on the throne.”
I put on my smiley-faced tube socks and looked down at my happy feet. I smiled back. Hello Happy Feet. Whatcha doin’? Day Doc came in. What a nice guy, I thought. Spousal Unit was back and sitting beside me. He’d gone home to be with Offspring during the night. Day Doc asked for the story. We gave a more coherent fleshed out version. We name-dropped the neighbor cardiologist who is humble, but really IS a big dang deal. Day Doc knew him, thought highly of him, glad neighbor cardiologist was there the night before, even if it did mean we crashed the party. Day Doc asked if I were active. “Well, I exercise sporadically, but I really never stop. My daughter rides horses and I’m always schlepping around at the barn and…”
“That’s how I know you!”
Come to find out, Day Doc is marrying one of our horse friends with whom we go to shows quite often. We’ve been at shows with Day Doc, but I never really knew his last name and the name he’s called isn’t the name that’s on the badge. I hadn’t recognized him. I was sleep deprived and expecting Frodo, plus people look different at horse shows than they do in real life. A little more unhinged, perhaps.
I squealed. Day Doc wouldn’t let me die on his watch. His fiancée would be stuck taking Girl Child to horse shows if I weren’t present in this life and that would make her grumpy and not fun to be around. She would do a good job, though. She’s pretty good about remembering to take a Kuerig, because there is no such thing as too much coffee at a horse show. Still, Day Doc’s life would be less pleasant if I were pushing up daisies.
Day Doc said my blood work showed no heart attack, but to be safe, there were going to be some tests. I’m pretty good at tests. This would be fun. I had on red tube socks with smiley faces.
As I lay next to a huge machine, trying to remain calm and not believe it looked hella like an MRI and I hate me some MRIs, with some sort of radioactive, nuclear goo pouring through my veins, I thought of all the ways I’d rather be spending a Monday. I’m lousy at tests. This wasn’t fun. Cleaning out a horse stall would be better than this. Dealing with a certain crazed consignment store owner would be more fun and relaxing. Searching for pieces of Bessie she dropped on the side of the road in the hot blazing sun is more fun. So many ways I would rather spend my time. But time is what this was all about. I really want more time. I will take the tests.
So, I got nuclearized, then photographed, then stress tested. An advantage to being middle-aged, fat and out of shape is that a stress test takes a woefully short amount of time. I was up to the required heart rate faster than it takes my Honda Pilot to go from 0 to 60. It was embarrassing, but what the hell, my boobs were plastered with oozy, sticky things and my breath smelled like the grease trap in a Mexican restaurant. Embarrassment had become de riguer. Even though I was on the treadmill a shamefully short time, the motion had slid my socks down so that the smiley faces were flaccid, hanging about five inches from my feet. They had gone from smileys to confused face emojis. I hear you pal.
I was photographed in the Big Machine That Is NOT An MRI one last time, before I was shuttled to a room for an echocardiogram, where country music was playingon the radio. I lay in the room by myself for a while, listening to the woeful stories of the unfortunate ones until the tech came in, a sweet cat lady kind of woman, and we chatted it up for the next 45 minutes while she watched my innards beat and carry on. It’s fun to watch your heart beat on a monitor. Not as much fun as watching your baby’s when you’re 20 weeks pregnant, but fun nonetheless. I left there with gratefulness in my heart that it was working and gratefulness that I could get through 45 minutes listening to country music and a sweet cat lady who thought the rainbow had been “ruint, if you know what I mean,” without my beating, functioning heart exploding.
After the echo, came an ultrasound. I was very efficiently moved from one place to another, my gurney wheeled around like a dessert cart in a four-star restaurant. I had my phone, but there was no reception. I couldn’t tell Spousal Unit that I was okay, that I really had to pee and that I was getting hungry. It was two in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten since that fateful bite of seared tuna the night before. Wherever I got parked between tests always seemed to be in front of a television with the Food Network on.
Finally I was shuttled back to the room, where lunch awaited. It was 2:30. I was still NPO, which apparently means No Phreaking Ohmnomnoms and my dry, unsalted chicken breast served under glass/plastic waited, getting drier and less salty until I could be cleared for food. “I can warm this up for you,” offered the day nurse once I was allowed it and I kindly declined. Cold, dry and tasteless is better than warm, dry yet rubbery and tasteless from the microwave.
Day Doc Who Is Marrying Horse Friend came in. I was also cleared for take-off. All of the tests results were negative and my heart was okay. Ultra-sound showed liver, gall bladder and pancreas were okay as well. He surmised that I might have had an esophageal spasm. It apparently presents much like a heart attack and I would Google it to see, but am afraid to. I don’t want rumors to start. He advised me to check with my Primary Care Physician. Oh poor Gary. His lot in life is to be a close family friend as well as my PCP. I don’t envy the man.
I was shuttled one last time, this time in a wheelchair, to Spousal Unit’s car, with a tub of hospital goodies, red smiley-faced safety skid tube socks and Girl Child’s favorite backpack in my lap. I have a social worker friend whose job often requires her to supply women with housing and she always needs travel sized personal care items. I’ll give her those. I’ll keep the tub. Those are great for hand washables. I’ll keep my smiley-faced tube socks. We’re friends now. We’ve been through a stress test together. It looks like I’ll keep a few bloodletting bruises for a while, as well as spots of sticky goo dotted across my torso.
I will also keep a promise I made to myself as I lay in the ambulance and thoughts of not coming back home to my amazing family, my farting dog and my dilapidated unfinished trailer ran through my frightened brain. I will make as many healthy choices as I can for the rest of my life. I know I’ll screw up, but I will ensure that I screw up fewer times than I succeed. I have to.
After, all, I want as many normal and only slightly abnormal days as I can have.