Let’s not bury the lede here, I just had a heart attack! And not just any heart attack either, it was the widow maker. Let me tell you the story.
I’ve been low key not feeling like myself for a long time now. I’m not “sporty” active but I’m not the type to just sit around and do nothing. I love taking pictures, reading, learning, walking and just generally handling life like chores and such. I’m not a lazy person. I like getting shit done. But over the last 5-6 years I’ve put on a good bit of weight. Partly due to extra responsibility like raising David (my sisters kid), two back to back family illnesses that resulted in death, losing my job, starting a business and going back to work full time as a software engineer. I put everything else before myself, which I’m prone to do. So about a year ago I decided to get back in shape. I started eating better and trying to work out but kept falling off the wagon. While the treadmill isn’t exactly fun I’ve always found time in the past and this time I just didn’t have the energy. I struggled almost every time I got on it. I’m getting a bit older, now 46, and assumed that plus being out of shape that I just couldn’t seem to get going.
Fast forward to a couple of months ago, I’m still trying to get back on the treadmill and eating better and working out more. I lost 10 pounds, was hitting the treadmill off and on and still struggling and added some light weight lifting for strength training. A couple weeks before Thanksgiving I had a good workout and did some bench presses and got really winded. I thought I over did it.
A couple of days later I was walking into Target with my wife Erin and got a little winded again. And some mild chest discomfort that passed in about 2 minutes. I thought, fuck, I’m really out of shape. Worse than I had previously thought. I really have to get myself in shape.
And then it started happening more often. We had to go get a car tag for David’s car and walking to the court house I couldn’t even keep up with Erin. People usually complain about how fast I walk and I couldn’t even keep up. I knew something was wrong. I talked to Erin about it and told her if it happens again that I want to go see my doctor.
And it happened again. It was worse at night while rolling around in the bed. I started having pain in both my arms. It was just awful. I had made an appointment to see my family doctor because I didn’t even consider that this might be a heart attack. I thought maybe angina but not a heart attack. So I started taking baby aspirin like all the commercials tell you to do while waiting to get to my doctors appointment.
When I saw her, I let her know and it wasn’t quite so bad then. The pain was probably still around 3-4 but getting a little scary. She sent me to have some x-rays done and when she got the results, my lungs and heart all looked good. She also did a lot of bloodwork and everything was fine other than some slightly elevated LDL cholesterol. No problem, I can work on that. But the pain took a quick turn and jumped to a 6-7 and the frequency increased to almost anytime I moved or did anything.
I called my family doctor again and she sent me to have all my internal organs an ultrasound. And again, everything came back normal. I was in great health as far as anyone could tell. But the pain and frequency was still increasing. I was missing work and couldn’t sleep and even eating became a problem.
Two days after the ultra sound I went to Huntsville Hospital ER and spent 6 hours waiting to see a doctor. They did do blood work and check my vitals while waiting but they didn’t get me into the back area for 6 hours. They then ran some more blood and decided to do a Cardiac CT scan. It’s a really good test and should find anything wrong with my heart. They needed to get my heart rate down for the test. My heart rate was normal, about 70-85 bps but it would spike to about 100 bps during an “episode”. It took 6 vials of beta blocker and my heart rate STILL wouldn’t go down. I had to have help moving around and had several episodes in the ER that day and even one during the cardiac ct! Then I just had to wait. I saw the first doctor for a total of about 5 minutes. He suggested that it was from working out. My pain level at this point was a 10. I couldn’t function.
Hours later, about 12Pm, after spending 16 hours in the ER they came and told me that the heart doctor found a 50% blockage. It wasn’t in my heart or any of the cardiac arteries and that I would need to see a cardiac specialist. Nothing a little diet and exercise wouldn’t fix and is normal for someone my age. And so they released me. Everyone was pretty cold and no one really talked to me more than few seconds at a time. Just threw a little jargon at me and went on to the next thing. It was a horrible experience. No one listened to me and just assumed because I’m not screaming that I must not be in that much pain. I have a very high pain tolerance but I was at my breaking point. And I don’t outwardly show pain. I deal with it mentally.
The next day was absolutely horrible. Thankfully Erin tried rubbing my face and arms with ice cold rags and it helped me get through these episodes. I had to sit, hands clinched on my legs and my jaw as tight as it could be and fight through the pain. My arms hurt way worse than my chest. My chest was just “uncomfortable” but the arms, holy shit did they hurt. The following day was even worse. We found some morphine from Erin’s mom’s cancer treatments and I just needed a break from the pain, even if just a little. It was low dose and slow release and I took my first one about mid morning. It helped. But the pain was starting to go up my arms and into my shoulders now and my ability to handle the pain mentally was failing. I broke down several times. I told Erin that if we don’t do something I won’t live through this another day.
That afternoon, I decided to take one more pill (you could take one every 4 hours) and go to Crestwood Hospital’s ER and try there. My dad had gone up to the ER to prep them for my arrival. Erin drove me and within 5 minutes of telling the person in ER they wheeled me back to triage and took some vitals, did some blood tests and did another chest x-ray.
About 15 minutes later the ER doctor came in and I asked me all about my issues which I retold for like the 10th time and told him I had taken the morphine, which he chastised me for and said that I didn’t need to be taking anything like that for this kind of pain. But he took my pain seriously and treated me like a person and ran some more blood work every 10-15 minutes. The heart doctor then arrived and I retold my story again and I told him about the cardiac ct where they found 50% blockage and that I had done a ton of research and talked to friends in the medical profession and nobody thought that blockage could cause the level of pain I was in.
He told me that test was the gold standard and he reviewed all the test from the other hospital and agreed that nothing remarkable was on the tests! He also told me that if I was questioning this test and doctors in general that it doesn’t usually go well for people but he was still kind and treated me like a person. He said the blood tests are sometimes overly sensitive but since I was in so much pain he was going to keep looking. They did another round of bloodwork after he left and then compared them all and it showed my cardiac enzymes were climbing.
The other doctor came back in a few minutes later and said I was going to be staying a few days and in the morning I’d be getting a heart catheter to go in and look for what’s causing my pain. Guess what drug they gave me to settle my heart? Morphine. Between the water and self medicating, I bought myself an extra day! That and taking the baby aspirin since these events started I think I helped prevent further damage to my heart.
So the next morning they take me back for the heart catch after the nurse shaved my private bits, which is pretty fucking awkward. Once they wheeled me back they gave me something to relax because I had to be awake for this one. I was feeling pretty great with whatever they gave me and was pretty chatty. I remember the heart doctor telling me to hush while he was concentrating lol. But after about 15 minutes he left and went out to tell Erin and my Dad that he hadn’t found anything. He looked everywhere. But because my pain level was so high he was going to go take a second look.
Dr. Burns then spent over an hour looking around inside me and finally found the cause – a blockage in the LAD that was about 80-90%! He found the fucking widow maker! He removed the blockage and put in a stint and went out to tell my Dad and Erin and of course they broke down. Tears of joy that I was going to make it. There’s no question the folks at Crestwood saved my life but they also treated me and my family like we mattered and took my pain and my story about what was going on seriously. And he didn’t give up after the first look. That second look, without question, is why I’m able to sit here and write this post and tell you all about it. I’m alive because a very good doctor took my word and saved my life.
There are so many people at Crestwood I would like to thank. I don’t remember all their names, I met so many people but one of the first ones was a former army medic name Leonard and he was just amazing. Everyone there was. If I ever need help again there’s no question I’ll be going there from now on. They treated me with compassion and truly cared for me the entire time. Every single person was like this. The polar opposite of how I was treated at Huntsville Hospital.
Erin and I have had several good cries both during this ordeal and now after – tears of joy and relief and just letting the stress finally leave our bodies. I’m not fully over the emotional ride yet. I still get a little worried that something might happen and I know that’s normal. It’ll take some time to fully let this sink in and deal with it. But I’m so thankful to be alive.
I’m also so grateful for all the people in my life who helped. Family, friends, co-workers and even strangers! Without their support I don’t think i would have made it. I’m especially thankful to the people who came to see me, called me or messaged me to keep checking on me and encouraging me.
I’m on the road to recovery and my prognosis is excellent. No lasting damage to my heart was done and I should be back to 100% in a few weeks or so. I think the steps we took to help with the pain helped prevent major heart damage and as a result I’ll make a full recovery and I don’t even need cardiac rehab. I just have to do the cardiac diet for a while (I’ll be staying on it, even if I don’t have to) and exercising, which I was trying to do anyway. So many things went wrong during this but all the important things went right. I know just how lucky I got.
Thanks again to every single person who showed me love – I can’t thank you enough. I’m so glad to still be here and finally pain free. I must have been sick for longer than I even knew. I could tell immediately that I was breathing better than a I had in years. It must have gradually been building up and I never noticed. Even friends and family told me that they could tell something was off, I wasn’t my usual self and even 1 hour after they put the stint in it was like I was back. And it’s fucking great to be back!
I’m resting up this weekend but I’ll be back slinging code next week and I’m looking forward to Secret Santa next week with with my work family, who I adore. And I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with Erin and David and then spending the day with the whole family.
I’m going to end this with some advice: sometimes you have to push doctors to get the care you need. They see a lot of cases and if you don’t speak up they may not hear you. Even the good ones. I don’t show pain on the outside like most people and it’s caused me issues in the past so I knew to speak up. The first ER didn’t listen. Keep going, find someone to help you and don’t take no for an answer. In addition to the fantastic people who helped me once we knew what was going on, I’m also alive because I didn’t just accept their answers and I pushed to get the help I needed. Also, don’t eat so much salt or fatty foods!