A Significant Event

A Women’s Heart Attack

by Susan Lindsley

Who wants to be found dead on the toilet while the cat rubs figure eights around your legs to get you to pet her?

Your bowels wake you, and you lie still, keep your eyes closed and listen to your partner’s steady breathing. You try to move slowly so you don’t wake her, but your gut warns you to hurry. You slip out from under the covers, and as your feet hit the floor, the coldness runs up your legs and chases shivers along your back. Cold is good for sleeping, but not for walking around in the dark. You close the door to the bathroom and flick on the light; before you reach the john, the cat trots in to welcome you to morning, not realizing it is only 4:00 a.m.

You hurry to the john, and as you sit, your bowels cramp and nausea begins to niggle at you. Too much restaurant supper last night. More than a touch of indigestion? You look at the trash can, it’s liner almost full. Well, at least if you do vomit you can jerk out the liner and use the metal can. It’ll wash. You think back to the time you had salmonella and vomited while diarrhea racked your guts. The thought brings a shiver as sweat begins to wet your clothes. The nausea seems to move upward a bit and then turn to pain. Sharp pain.

And the cat twines around your ankles, her tail like a noodle whip as she mews to ask for petting. The spasms end and the nausea passes. But the sharp aching continues just beneath your left breast, and the sweat is unbelievable. When was the last time you had a hot flash? It’s been several years, but none like this, with sweat trickling down. Weakness creeps over you. As you wash your hands, you look at yourself in the mirror and think, I must be sick. I’m pale as the walls. And your eyes have sunk into purple pools. Although the nausea has passed, the pre-nausea sweat you always had just before you emptied your stomach has not only continued but seems to be intensifying. You rest your hands on the edge of the basin and lean over, remembering your mother. She had indigestion, she thought. You weren’t there, but you remember the story your Aunt Katie had told later.

​“In Hawaii, we traveled by boat from one island to another, and on the way your mama got to feeling bad. Upset stomach, she thinks. Maybe a touch of seasickness. When we arrived at our hotel, instead of going to supper with the group, she tells us she would lie down until her indigestion passed”.

“About 90 minutes later, when we returned to our room from supper, we found your mama dead of a heart attack”. Are you having a heart attack? No pain down the left arm. No pain up the neck. No feeling of pressure. You are two years older than your mama when she died. And older than the grandmother you never knew who also thought she had indigestion and died of a heart attack in the five minutes her daughter (your mama) was gone to the kitchen for a bi-carb to relieve the gas pressure. You reach for the aspirin. You quit taking it two months ago when you had surgery, so you blame yourself if it is a heart attack. You pop one pill, grab the glass, and get enough water to wash down the ASA, put the cat out into the den, and head back to the bedroom. “Sweetheart,” you call her. She answers with a sleep-filled murmur. “Please wake up. I think I’m sick.” You don’t want to tell her you’re having a heart attack. Let her wake up good before you scare the very daylights out of her. She sits up. “What’s the matter?”

You reach for your slacks and as you slip them on you answer. “I’ve got some funny feelings in my chest. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
She jumps up and hurries into her clothes, dressed long before you tie your shoes. You grab your sweatshirt. It’s cold out, below freezing. Near 60 inside, but still you sweat while shivering. You head downstairs together and your three animals begin to dance around you, happy to see the day start early. The stairs seem to go on forever as your legs wobble from weakness. You grip the single banister with both hands, and once on the first floor you sit in the lounge chair by the front door while she dashes to the phone to call 911.

Her voice reaches you from the kitchen as she gives information, and before she returns to you, she puts the animals out—the cats into the guest bedroom and the dog into the basement so they can’t escape when the EMTs arrive. Red lights flash through the glass panels in the front door. Your partner opens it for two uniformed EMTs to enter, one a tall lanky man and the other a younger woman, both carrying an emergency kit. They announce that they are the “first responders” and that the ambulance crew will be along. The woman kneels at your feet and begins to ask questions. As you talk with her, you become aware then the pain has gone, the sweating has lessened, but you are still shivering with cold. Has the aspirin done its job and stopped the heart attack—if it were a heart attack? Her hands are strong and deft as she checks pulse, blood pressure and temperature, but her voice is light, as if she’s having an afternoon tea rather than on a life-saving mission. You realize she is trying to help you relax and not worry about what is happening. The two ambulance EMTs arrive with a stretcher. You won’t remember much about being put on the stretcher, but you’ll never forget the trip to their vehicle. The city tore up the sidewalk two weeks ago and has not yet re-paved it. The six-inch deep hole extends from one end of the yard to the other; boards line the opening, and red flagging is pulled taut alongside. The EMTs lift the stretcher, kick down the red flagging, and transport you across the ditch. You hear their feet squish in the mud. In you go head first, and the two medics confer and then begin the journey to Emory Hospital. One straps a tourniquet around your left arm, and you say, “I’m left-handed. Please don’t start an IV there.”

“We have to,” he says. “It’s standard procedure.” Your right arm is against the wall. You decide it’s too much effort to argue and he sticks the IV needle into the elbow joint. You won’t be bending the arm or using it for much with the needle there. But he does not start Ringers or any other fluids. “What’re you doing?” He calls to the driver when the ambulance pulls into a bank parking lot. “Turning around. I took a wrong turn.”

Glad you weren’t dying.

You finally arrive at the Emory Emergency room, and your partner appears from nowhere. How did she get here so fast? She had to feed the animals after she released them from their short-term lock-ups. Voices direct the EMTs to a cubicle as nurses and a doctor enter behind you. One slaps a nitroglycerine patch on your chest. Another brings in an IV pole. Just as you decide it’s time to argue about the location of that needle, the nurse inserts a new one in the other arm, above the hand, so you can’t use that arm either. The elbow needle gets pulled out. All the chest pain is gone. You feel good. And hungry. You ask for food, but are told no, you’re going to have a catheter, so you have to wait. The doctor asks if you had pain in your arm or in your neck. You answer no and ask the doctor if you had a heart attack.

“I’d say you have an insignificant cardiac event,” he replies.

Your partner came prepared, for here comes the ER clerk for insurance information and your partner pulls out your Blue Cross card. You wait. And wait, from 5 a.m. until close to 1 p.m. before a catheter lab is free. All you will remember about that procedure is saying to the doctor, “That hurts,” and they give you enough meds to knock you out. Three stents and an hour later, you’re back in your room, your right leg strapped so you couldn’t move it while they had to open up your artery. When the doctor stops by he changes his diagnosis to “significant cardiac event.”

Home again Monday afternoon, and Tuesday morning, you receive a telephone call that the Old Capitol Press wants to publish your book.

Even better, you weren’t found dead on the toilet.

© Copyright 2006  Susan Lindsley,  all rights reserved