What I want you to know about having a heart attack

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Kimby.

I want you to know that I was 38 years old, a little overweight, but overall healthy. On Monday, June 16, I had what I thought was a gall bladder attack. Two weeks earlier, I was diagnosed as having gall stones, so I had already scheduled an appointment to have my gall bladder removed. The pain was unbearable. It started out as severe burning in my chest, like heartburn, and engulfed the entire top half of my body. I couldn't find a position that would make the pain go away. Then I broke out into a sweat and started shaking. I knew something was NOT right, and fearing for the worst, I contacted a colleague (I was staying in a local hotel for work) who dialed 911.

Once the paramedics arrived, most of the pain had gone away. They took my vitals and checked my heart, and they dismissed it as a gall bladder attack. They gave me the choice to go with them in the ambulance or come to the hospital later if I started feeling bad again. I chose not to be transported by ambulance, and the paramedics left. A friend of mine bought some heartburn medicine for me, which I took immediately. However, the pain came back. I concentrated really hard to make the pain go away again, and it did…mostly. I contacted my GI doctor to get seen immediately. I could hardly walk and couldn't drive, so another colleague drove me to the doctor's office. There, I was prescribed heartburn medicine, pain medicine, and sent for blood work. I also rescheduled my gall bladder surgery to Friday, June 20 (originally scheduled Wednesday, June 25, due to my work schedule).

The pain medicine seemed to help, and by the next morning, I felt I was okay to go into work and just take it easy most of the day. That idea was quickly squashed, as another attack came on mid-morning! This time, the pain was centered to my sternum and had moved to the left. I also had shortness of breath, and it hurt to breathe deeply. I immediately contacted my GI doctor who told me that my blood work had come back with elevated levels of WBCs, therefore, I had an infection…most likely, gall bladder infection. This made my situation urgent. We contacted the GI surgeon to see if he could work me in that day, which he did. My surgery was now scheduled for 4:00pm that day. Before leaving for the outpatient facility, the surgeon contacted me and said he didn't feel right about sending me to the outpatient facility in case something went wrong - since we already knew there was an infection - so he wanted me to be admitted to the hospital instead. He would do my surgery and I would spend the night so they could check and make sure all was okay before releasing me the next morning. This would be my first surgery AND my first hospital stay ever! I was really nervous, coupled with the fact that I could barely breathe.

I had two of my friends drive me to the hospital to get checked in. My breathing was very shallow and labored. I was weak, didn't feel well, was in pain, and my eye sight started getting blurry. Once I was in the surgery prep room, I let all of the doctors and nurses know about my painful and shallow breathing. All assured me that wasn't a problem, and I would be feeling better in no time. I don't even remember being put to sleep with anesthesia. The only thing I remember next was waking up after the surgery.

I was in recovery, and I woke up, very groggy, to someone saying my name, "Kim!" I was then left alone and began to feel excruciating pain in the upper half of BOTH arms. I also felt nauseous. I started to moan and groan and shake my arms and call for someone to please help me, that I was nauseous, and my arms were hurting really bad. I think I was dozing in and out. Someone asked me how long I'd had a heart problem. I went into fighter mode and became very defensive. I said, "I don't have a heart problem!" Someone else asked me if I knew I had a heart problem. I said, "I don't have a problem with my heart! What is going on?"

The next thing I knew, people were all around me. I heard whispers of "heart condition" but no one ever told me what was wrong. Then someone started doing a 3D echo of my heart and asking me about my "heart condition". Again, I exclaimed that nothing was wrong with my heart. A nurse gave me an aspirin (I assume) to chew. I remember a Dr. going around and thanking each person individually for staying late to help me. Then I remember looking up and seeing a priest!

"Why is there a priest?!" I yelled out. "Is the priest here for me????!!!" Someone answered that there were normally lots of people around for surgeries. But that made me mad that there was a priest! Was I dying? Did they think I was going to die?? And no one was telling me what was going on?

I remember being taken into another surgery. I was afraid they might be cracking my chest for open heart surgery. I asked, "Am I going in for another surgery?" "Yes," was the reply from someone. "Am I having 1 or 2 more surgeries?" I asked. "Hopefully just 1," someone replied. "Will I need anesthesia?" I asked. "No, you only need a local anesthetic for this procedure," I heard. And then I was moved to a hard, cold, and narrow operating table.

I was able to turn my head enough to see the X-ray monitor that showed everything that was going on. I remember seeing my LAD artery…with a large plaque that was broken up…and the balloon and stent being pushed through my artery to that area with the plaque. Unbelievable! I heard someone say there was a blockage. I asked what percentage and was told 80%. I think that's the moment I shut up and realized…OH #&@$! This is serious!!!!

And then I started coughing. I coughed so hard, and I was coughing up fluid…so much fluid!! I was almost choking and gagging there was so much fluid that was gushing up through my throat from the coughing!! It tasted so gross. And the next thing I remember is being in ICU with a Cpap on my face and being yelled at to let it breathe for me. But I felt suffocated. Finally, I was able to relax and found my rhythm with this Cpap. All of my family was there. Why? This was a simple gall bladder surgery that went horribly wrong, right?

Two days later, I was finally told that I wasn't expected to survive the first night. The damage to my heart was about 50%. My prognosis was grim. When I was coughing in the OR, it was pulmonary edema, and my lungs were filling with fluid from heart failure!! HEART FAILURE? I HAD A HEART ATTACK! My medical record is official - Acute Myocardial Infarction! What? I had suffered a massive heart attack in the widow-maker - LAD - a large plaque had burst and collapsed my artery. The doctors were called in and were at my side working on me within 5-7 minutes. The cath lab was 2 doors down. Every minute was critical to saving my life.

I want you to know is that I was supposed to be at an outpatient facility. I wasn't even supposed to be in the hospital. The cardiologists did not even practice in the hospital - they were there for a seminar. The heart attack was completely independent of the gall bladder surgery, so it would have happened no matter where I was at that time on that day. Thankfully, all of the stars were aligned, and I was given a second chance at life…

I want you to know that the doctors had lots of questions for me the next day - what were my symptoms, where did it hurt, etc. They say I'm the luckiest person they've ever met. This heart attack normally kills people instantly. They said that most of my gall bladder symptoms were most likely heart attack symptoms. Thank goodness I had a bad gall bladder problem to get me to the hospital!

I want you to know that with my new lease on life, I must now live a different way, eat a certain way, and exercise a certain way. It has been a life-changing event, and I welcome you to follow me on my journey. I take several pills on a daily basis, am currently in Cardiac Rehab, must take careful note of symptoms/pains/BP, and must seriously watch my diet.

I want you to know that my biggest risk factor was that heart disease runs heavily in my dad's family. My dad had a quadruple bypass when he was 53, but I'm the youngest in his family to be affected.

I want you to know that I am not the face of a heart attack, but it happened to me. My doctor has asked permission to share my story of inspiration for young women. I also want to share my story and inspire everyone to live a heart-healthy lifestyle and to listen to YOUR body. 

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