It happened two days after my son’s graduation from Vanderbilt, a joyful event in his life and in our midlife.
We had helped him move out of his apartment, watched him say good-bye to great friends and to a college life he had loved. We made ourselves — available.
I noticed that I didn’t have the energy I normally did, something that had been plaguing me for months. I had to stop and rest going up a flight of steps. I was having back pain when I walked, my chest would feel tight. I snapped at my husband one day when he asked again, “Did you sleep okay last night? You look tired…”.
I was tired of people asking me if I was tired.
My grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack. My first cousin died in Times Square of cardiovascular problems. My dad had his first heart attack in his mid-40’s.
I didn’t want to have cardiovascular disease.
So I told myself… I was tired.
We were about to leave the hotel to go to the airport when I knew I couldn’t get on a plane. My heart was racing faster than I had ever remembered. I felt sick to my stomach.
The taxi driver drove like a banshee to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, my husband trying to stay calm.
My blood pressure was 230 over 170 something. To say I felt faint would be an understatement.
I handled all of that okay, trying to be polite so the nurses would see me as a person, not a heart attack waiting to happen. It wasn’t until they started a Heparin drip, with two of them needing to perform the procedure “because it’s too dangerous,” that tears came to my eyes.
I was now a cardiac patient.
When my son entered the room, I tried to look brave.
Two days later, I was discharged. After a heart cath and other testing, it turns out I have “coronary vasospasm”. They are arterial spasms in your heart, more rare than the muscle spasm of a heart attack. I’m on meds, one of which provides a thudding headache most mornings. But I’m lucky, and that goes away. The symptoms are better, although I could now employ the fact that I have “heart palpitations” in order to get my way.
I doubt it would work, but I could try.
Since being home, I’ve read some articles on my new disorder, what’s also termed “Prinzmetal’s angina.” If you have it, there’s a heightened risk for heart attack. But I’ve not wanted to focus on it too much.
Yet I’m aware that something is shifting. Someone was being supportive the other day about a project I’m working on. “Oh, you’ve got plenty of time…”. Most of me nodded.
Another, very tiny voice murmured, “Hmm…… remember that heart thing?”
I don’t want to listen to that voice. It’s a bit annoying. But it’s part of who I am now. I need to notice and accept its presence. It’s a reminder of what I felt in that emergency room.
Maybe it will help me take better care of myself, something I tearfully promised my son I would do.
By the time we get to midlife, we all have something. Whether it’s a troubled marriage, a child on drugs, unwanted pounds, cancer, chronic disease, financial problems, depression, a bad hip, or simply fear that your life is too good, and you might lose that status, we all have something.
Living with ambiguity, of not knowing what’s going to happen in life, and thus coping with our own fear, is a skill. And that skill becomes more needed, the older we become.
How do you cope with fear? With not knowing?
You can practice answering the question, “But what if “x” happens?” You figure out what you’d do. You stick with it, until you discover your own answer. It might not be everyone’s answer, but it’s yours.
Then you stop asking the question, and root yourself firmly in the present. If you struggle with that, if you find yourself worrying a lot, or becoming afraid of getting older, you can seek help. Talk with friends, a pastor, or a therapist. Just don’t isolate. That’s the worst thing you can do.
I’ve added cardiovascular disease to my list of somethings. I’ve got more than my fair share of wonderful stuff to balance that out.
That tiny voice will not govern my life if I have anything to do with it.
One more thing.
Please don’t ignore the signs that your heart is struggling. For women, even jaw pain can indicate symptoms. I was lucky in many ways. Denial can kill you.
My gratitude also goes out to the medical staff of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I was treated very well, and want to thank them for their expertise and kindness.