My grandfather dropped dead of a massive heart attack in his early 60s. I think I was 11 when that happened. I learned from an early age that my father’s side of the family had a bit of a history when it came to heart problems. So this past Tuesday when my chest started hurting, I paid attention. Not a a lot, mind you. I didn’t go to the hospital when it started. I finished out my shift at work and caught the bus home.
That night I called my mom, who has for the majority of my life worked as a nurse at Tacoma General Hospital. She advised me to take an aspirin every six hours and try to take it easy for the next week. She also said to go get seen if I had any other symptoms.
But Wednesday morning, I woke up and felt like I usually do after a very long and strenuous day. And it was the morning. And I had slept well. So it wasn’t sleep deprivation. I told my wife. She said we should go to the Auburn Urgent Care (the nearest Urgent Care to our house.)
We got there and they immediately hooked me up to an EKG and up an oxygen tube up my nose. They said they were calling the ambulance to take me to Auburn Regional. My wife used to work at Auburn Regional. She had told me more than enough stories about the place to keep me away. Not to mention the fact that if there was truly anything wrong with me, my mom would kill me if I wasn’t in her hospital.
We told them we wanted to go to Tacoma General. The doc refused. I said, “Fine. I’ll sign myself out AMA and my wife will drive me to Tacoma General.” The doctor really didn’t like this and tried to scare me by saying, “You may be having a heart attack right now.” But to me that was all the more reason to get to a hospital I trust.
Twenty minutes later we were in the Emergency Department of Tacoma General. The Auburn Urgent Care had at least called ahead to let them know we were coming. I asked if I could use the rest room as soon as I got there. The admitting nurse handed me a cup and told me where the rest room was. TG had entirely rebuilt the Emergency Department since the last time I’d been there. It’s incredible. It really feels like a 21st century hospital. In the rest room I couldn’t help but notice that among the tiles, they had an aquatic theme going. If you counted a starfish as a seashell, then there were three seashells in the in the wall, which I found funny thanks to my love for Demolition Man.
Almost immediately they hooked me up to an EKG, putting stickers and electrodes all over my chest. The large male nurse tried to find a vein for an IV in my right arm and failed, then my left arm and failed, then finally found in in my right arm. (I learned later from my mom that I should have asked for ‘IV Therapy’, a team at the hospital that just does IVs.)
They asked a lot of questions. Did my chest hurt right now? No. Was I more tired than normal? Yes. What did the pain in my chest feel like? Like a rock had been placed on it. Did I have a family history of heart problems? Yes. How much do I drink? How much do I smoke? Do I do any illegal drugs? Did I have any spiritual needs during my stay? This last one surprised me. As an atheist I had no needs and I almost felt like saying, “I believe in medicine and science that’s why I came here rather than some place that would try to heal me with crystals.”
A little later a guy came in and did a chest X-Ray. The chest tray they put behind my back was more than a little cold. A doctor came in maybe an hour later. He had me recount my story of what had brought me there. He said, “We might be able to do a Cardio CT. We only have staff for the day shift and you fit the parameters for it. It’s not a test we often get to do.”
He went on to explain that the test requires that they inject me with something that will slow my heart rate down to under 60 beats per minute. Then they put me in a machine that creates a 3D image of my heart.
I thought that the medication would make me really relaxed. Instead the medication made me just barely conscious. I was half asleep watching my vitals as my heart rate got lower and lower. 65…63..Then I’d move and it’d go up to 68 and then back down. Eventually it was at a steady 55 and occasionally going lower. They wheeled me into another room and had me get on the table. Once I was on the table and in the imaging tube, they injected some contrast dye in me. It made my head and my crotch suddenly feel like someone had placed hot wet rags on them. At the same time, they told me that I needed to hold my breath for 30 seconds, while surrounded by this tube, having had no food for the past 12 hours and on drugs that were slowing my heart down and making my head hot. We did this twice.
The next few hours were spent barely awake. Eventually the doctor came in. I wanted more than anything for the doctor to say, “You have the heart of a twenty-year-old. There is no reason for you to be here.” Instead he said, “We think we may have found some calcifications in your heart. The image is a bit blurry because you apparently moved during the CT. Even a tiny movement can do that. We need to run a stress test on you to be sure, but we can’t do that until tomorrow due to the drugs currently in your system. We’re admitting you to the hospital for the night and we’ll go from there.”
If you’ve lived a life like mine, there’s a part of you that thinks sooner or later all the shit you do and have done is going to catch up with you. There are rules and I’ve spent a fair amount of my life breaking them. I’ve never really been into exercising or dieting. I’ve eaten Baconators and Ultimate Breakfast Sandwiches like they were vitamins. I’ve eaten entire pizzas all by myself just because I wanted to. There have been times when I smoked cigarettes and drank a lot. When you live like that and have a brain in your head, some part of you knows that sooner or later you’ll be in a hospital bed and a doctor is going to tell you, “We’ve found something.”
I told my wife to call my parents. I told her to contact my employer and let them know I wouldn’t be at work tomorrow. I thought about my wife, my son, my children, my writing, my entire life. I wondered how bad this might get. I’m a paranoid guy so it wasn’t long before I was thinking of a world without me.
I didn’t pray. Sure, I’m an atheist and atheist don’t pray but I wasn’t always an atheist and I don’t think anyone would fault me if I did. I trusted in the doctors. I trusted in technology. I trusted in science because even if there were a God, I don’t think he’d be holding any miracles for me.
I updated my Facebook like crazy. This helped pass the time between test results and alert just about everyone I knew as to what was going on. I checked and smiled at the kind comments. In my more paranoid moments I thought how nice it was that if I dropped dead, I would apparently be missed. At least on Facebook.
Around eight they got me into a room on in the Cardiac Ward. I was the youngest person there. The room on the seventh floor had an incredible view.
They finally brought me food. They warned me ahead of time that the food was ‘heart healthy’. It appeared to be some shredded turkey with potatoes and gravy. I was hungry enough that I didn’t care what it was. As the night wore on, my wife offered to stay the night, but I told her to go home and try to sleep. I knew she probably wouldn’t sleep, but I felt bad enough that I was stuck there. No reason to stick her there as well. She said she’d go home later.
A little after ten my mom showed up. She was working the night shift in an hour but came in to check on me before that. She told me she’d come by in the morning as well. A nurse came in and explained that I’d have the stress test ‘sometime between 8am and 5pm’ the next day. She also said that she’d be checking my vitals every four hours. So I should expect her at midnight and four in the morning. Shortly after that my wife went home.
I watched the Daily Show and fell asleep. The cardiologist came in at some point but I wasn’t really awake and only remember her coming in and nothing of our conversation. I woke up again about three in the morning. Something had startled me awake. I wasn’t sure where I was or why I was there. For a few moments I sort of freaked out. Then the nurse came in and my recent memories came back to me. She checked my vitals and left.
In the morning I woke up to my mom coming in along with a different nurse. It was around seven. I didn’t recognize the nurse. She introduced herself and told me she was there to inject something radioactive in me to prepare for my stress test this morning. This surprised me because I was told the night before it could be any time between 8 am and 5 pm. Maybe I was the only one on the list. Or maybe my mom pulled some strings. Whatever the case, I knew that my wife planned on calling at 8am to find out when I’d be going for the test. So I immediately told my mom to contact my wife and get her here.
Twenty minutes later I was put in a wheelchair and taken to another room with another big machine. I did not feel well. I couldn’t eat anything after midnight for this test so again I was hungry. I got onto the table and watched the screen above me. It had these two squares with static in them that the technician assured me was my heart. She said this would take twenty minutes and that I should just breathe normally. At least I didn’t have to play dead. The machine moved all around me slowly and twenty minutes later I was done and taken upstairs.
They placed more electrodes on my chest and hooked all of these wires from me into a computer. I felt like Iron Man without the armor. She explained that they were going to have me jog on a treadmill and try to get my heart rate up to 160 beats per minute. She took one of the wires off and put it back on. Something was wrong. She tried messing with the wires some more while trying to keep my hospital gown on until I finally just took it off to make things easier for her. Luckily I was still wearing sweat pants though they did not fit and felt like they might fall down at any moment.
I suggested she reboot her computer. Nine times out of ten this fixes all computer problems. She tried that but still nothing. She brought in another guy who tried to make it work. Finally they replaced all the wires with a new set of wires. Still nothing. They made a call in to tech support and told me they’d have to try the machine downstairs in the Emergency Department.
In the Emergency Department they had the same set up and another treadmill. The guy from upstairs took off one of the electrodes and used an abrasive fabric to scrub my skin where the electrode had been. He then put a new electrode on. This worked. It turned out the problem wasn’t the machine. It was that my skin simply wasn’t conducting the way they needed it to. He did this same process with the other electrodes and we were in business.
A new doctor came in. He told me that they would have me walk on the treadmill and progressively make it steeper and faster and that once my heart got up to 160 beats per minute for over a minute, they’d inject me with some more radioactive stuff and make me go just a bit faster for 15 seconds after that.
I got on the treadmill. It was flat and it was a good walking pace. It didn’t seem bad at all. They told me to make my strides longer and get closer to the front of the treadmill. I did as asked. They sped it up and made it steeper. This continued until I was doing just under a job. After a few minutes my heart rate was hovering around 160. They injected the radioactive stuff and asked me if I was up for going much faster for 15 seconds. I wasn’t. I was exhausted. I wanted to eat. But I also knew that if they didn’t get what they wanted out of this test, they’d have to do another one and I didn’t want to do this again. So I said, “Yes.” I ran for 15 seconds after which he asked if I could do 15 more. I said okay. After that they slowed it down. I dropped into my wheelchair ready to pass out.
“Does your chest hurt?” Someone asked.
“No.” I said, somewhat surprised, “But I’m having trouble breathing.” A few minutes later, I was better, but still pouring sweat. They brought me back upstairs to the big machine and I did another twenty minute imaging session. When they got me back to my room I was as worn out as I’ve ever been.
My wife was there and so was food. It was eleven in the morning. Before I could touch the food my wife told the nurse, “This has been sitting here since 8am. Can we get him something warm?” The nurse took it away and instantly replaced it with a warm one.
I talked with my wife. She told me that my dad had called and talked to my mom. I figured I heard her wrong. My parents don’t speak to each other. They haven’t in at least 15 years. I asked her again. She said my dad had called my hospital room. My wife had answered and mentioned my mom was in the room. My dad asked her to put my mom on the phone. This shocked my wife as much as it would shock me. She put my mom on the phone and they talked for about fifteen minutes about my condition.
More than anything else, this made me afraid as to what my condition was. Yes, it made perfect sense that if your son is in a hospital that your ex-wife works in you should talk to her to find out what’s really going on. But my family hasn’t always been known for doing the sensible thing.
I told my wife I was going to rest. She said she’d run some errands and come back later in the afternoon. About an hour later a doctor came in and said that he’d looked at my test results and decided that the calcification they thought they saw on the CT was nowhere to be found on the stress test. He was going to talk with the cardiologist to get his opinion and then they’d likely release me from the hospital.
Now at this point, there was a part of me that said, “Well there you go. Your chest hurt. You were tired. You were stressed. You overreacted and went to the hospital. They tested you and it turns out you’re just FINE. No big deal. Let’s go get a double Baconator and call it a day.” This is the part of me I’ve listened to most of my life. He’s a fun guy. But I wasn’t listening to that.
Instead, I was listening to a part of me that said, “You got lucky, pal. And just because you didn’t have a heart attack doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re 37 and just maybe there are things in your life you need to change so you don’t end up here again anytime soon. Get better. Get all these drugs they’ve put in you out of your system. Start feeling like you again and then let’s take stock of everything in your life and find what’s working and what’s not. You have another chance and not everyone gets one of those. And even if none of that is true, there’s no reason not to act as if it is. The worst that can happen is you improve your life.”
I have a follow up appointment with my regular doctor next week followed by an appointment with my cardiologist. I don’t know what parts of my life I plan on changing. Some things I know will stay the same. Others like what I eat and how much I exercise are definitely going to change. I promised my Facebook friends I’d write a detailed account of everything that happened. I don’t think they expected a 3,000 word story, but I’m a writer and whenever something major happens I feel like I need to write about it. I don’t know who besides me would be interested in reading all of this. But I figured I’d post it all the same.
The result was that just about all of my friends on Facebook read it. Many encouraged me to post this on my regular website and so I have. A few days after my stay in the hospital last week I got a Thank You card.
My first follow up appointment is tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be posting more about my health and what changes I make in coming weeks. Right now I feel almost back to 100%, but my doctors and everyone else say that I did the exact right thing by getting checked out.
Some of the changes that have already happened include that I’m not even smoking the occasional cigarette now (I’d have one every now then before.) and I’m down to no more than three cans of Coke a day. Today I only drank one can of Coke. It’s the first time I’ve done that in a year. I’m taking stock of other activities and behaviors in my life and I’m sure I’ll be making changes where appropriate.
Thank you to everyone who wished me well, sent me nice comments, made phones calls, and otherwise helped me this past week. It’s been a rough one. One other thing I’ve realized is that I want to write more. So expect more posts on this site and over on my TacomaStories.com site.
Thanks for reading.
– Jack Cameron