heart attack anatomy

heart attack anatomy (Photo credit: gandhiji40)

I’ll get to the point as quickly as possible:

1. Yes, I spent Friday night in the hospital.

2. I am fine.

After spending Wednesday and Thursday picking up the pieces from my delayed trip back from Denver, I was finally set to work on Friday. You would think that all the notes I take would make it easy to write up a report on the conference I attended… but I’m an excruciatingly slow writer and I was only about a third of the way through at noon, when the pain hit.

The attacks began when I was in high school: A vague feeling of discomfort would turn into an intense, unrelenting ache deep inside my mid-section, and there was no escape. Laying in a fetal position would alleviate it for short bursts of time before it would come back in strength and I would have to try something else. The pain would usually hit late at night and last for hours, until I finally got to sleep… and when I’d wake up, it would be gone.

The stomach aches came with increasing frequency when I was at UCLA, and I took advantage of the student health services to get completely checked out. Test after test after test turned up no physical source of the pain. I came to the conclusion that they were related to stress (even though I could never pinpoint any one thing that served as a trigger; in fact, they usually occurred at times when I was not overly anxious about anything). After I transferred back to CSUN and was living at home and the pain would hit, my mom would slip me one of her Valiums, which would put me to sleep and make the pain go away.

I gradually stopped having these attacks, and by the time I got married, they had stopped entirely.

Until two weeks ago, when that familiar, awful pain hit me on a Saturday night and kept me awake into the wee hours of the morning. In desperation, I popped a Vicodin left over from last year’s broken toe episode.

And then it hit me again on Friday. And there was something different about it.

The pain wasn’t just in my belly. I felt it in my back, my left shoulder and arm… and in my chest.

Now, any of these pains could be just normal wear and tear on my middle-aged body; the difference could just be because I’m not 17 any more. But because I’m not 17 any more, it actually could have been something way more serious, according to the American Heart Association:

Heart Attack Signs in Women

  1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  4. Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  5. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

Something similar happened to one of the other bloggers who attended the Lifesavers Conference in Denver. I commented on her post. I wondered if the pain I was feeling was just the power of suggestion. But I also remembered my grandmother, who had her first heart attack at 50 and a stroke at 55. I lost a lot of weight a few years ago and since menopause, have gained a lot of it back very rapidly. That’s not good for your heart.

I decided to get myself checked out and drove myself to the ER. In hindsight, that was a stupid thing to do, because there were moments during the drive when the pain was so bad I thought about pulling over and calling 9-1-1 after all.

When you check into an emergency room complaining of chest pain, they don’t mess around. It did not take long to get me on a gurney and hooked up to monitors. I was given nitroglycerin. They took a lot of tests, including an ultrasound of my chest. The technician thought it looked good. I was relieved and expected to be released.

And I felt foolish, for wasting everyone’s time and scaring my family.

“You did the right thing in coming here,” the ER doctor assured me.

In fact, there was one test that came up negative, indicating a possible blood clot in my lung. I was admitted overnight for observation, and I underwent a cardiac stress test the next morning.

The cardiologist’s conclusion was that the chest pain was heartburn (also common for overweight people my age). He prescribed Prilosec and told me to reduce my caffeine intake. I was released late Saturday and am following orders and am seeing how much I can get done without my coffee fix. In the meantime, I now know my heart is strong and I can stop worrying about inheriting my grandmother’s cardiovascular problem — and focus on doing all I can to keep myself from developing one. I started a daily walking regime last month; I am going to step that up.

As for the weight: I’m at my wit’s end. But as long as I stick with food that is heart healthy, I should be OK.



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