When this column turns to matters of the heart, it’s usually about some movie I’ve just seen, some play I’ve attended, some music I’ve heard.
Not this week.
Heart attacks are statistics. They’re sudden, frightening, mysterious tragedies that happen to other people . . . right up until you have one yourself.
Mine occurred on Dec. 14. I woke up that morning experiencing something that felt like heartburn — hardly distressing, just a little uncomfortable.
Relying on my usual response to medical issues — denial — I popped a couple of Rolaids and continued with plans for the day. They included a swim before picking up grandkids at school, our usual routine here in Tucson, Ariz., where we’ve been for several months.
There were no pains in my left arm, none of the other symptoms I hadn’t paid much attention to in the American Heart Association public service announcements. Those “loved ones who die every 38 seconds” were other people. They didn’t swim 2,000 yards almost daily, still doing the butterfly into their 70s.
Deny, deny, deny. Chew two baby aspirin. Mission accomplished.
Luckily, my wife, Karen, had a better idea. So did our daughter, Lisa, who happens to be a nurse at Tucson Medical Center, a hospital about 10 minutes from where we’re staying. She was at work when Karen called her.
When told I didn’t want to spend the day in the emergency room filling out paperwork, Lisa answered.
“Just go to the reception desk, Dad, and say the magic words: ‘Chest pain.’ You won’t be filling out forms. They’ll rush you in, give you an EKG, check you out, then you can go swim.”
Karen drove me to TMC. By the time we arrived, the pain was pretty much gone. The smiling receptionist asked me what was wrong. I smiled back, mumbling something about this, uh, pain in my chest.
Before I could say, “It’s nothing, really . . .,” I was on a table, an EKG technician covering me with sensors. Once he finished, I headed back toward the reception area, but barely made it before the EKG tech was back with a wheelchair, getting me into it real fast.
The next stop was the cardio unit cath lab, with imaging equipment to examine hearts and arteries. A triage team of people in scrubs was waiting for me. Even though I was the center of attention I was the one not fully appreciating the gravity of the matter, still making small talk as they undressed me, gave me a tiny nitroglycerin pill, shaved body hair, inserted an IV, barely slowing down to explain what they were doing.
Treating a heart attack is a little like telling a joke: timing is everything.
Hmmm, was that a defibrillator next to me on the gurney? A nurse sped me up a corridor toward the operating room. There, a cardiologist and his team were waiting. They were in a hurry, too. He cut a small incision in my groin, then fished a stent into an artery heading in the direction of the damaged heart vessel. As the team worked, I watched parts of the procedure unfold on a screen above me, through a cheerful anesthetized haze.
It didn’t take long before they were done. Then a night in the hospital before being released the next day, about 24 hours after being admitted. Without any incision in my chest, I kept the hospital bracelet on to remind me it had really happened. It still doesn’t feel that way.
Prognosis: so far, so good. They apparently got to it before there was much permanent damage. I feel fine, thanks for asking.
A couple of weeks later, I celebrated my 73rd birthday the usual way. I went for a swim. On Maui, I marked special occasions on Baldwin Beach. Here I do it at Catalina Pool. My birthday butterfly looked the same as always.
For all the ominous associations around the words “heart attack,” new technology and good timing mean lots of us have happy endings to the story. The TMC cardio unit even has a TV commercial showing attractive, healthy looking people in colorful clothes, dancing around like Ellen DeGeneres as they tell their heart attack stories. They sound a lot like mine.
All the exercise helped in my case, but couldn’t undo decades of not caring enough about what I ate or drank, or thinking the warning labels didn’t apply to me. Now that I’ve seen models of what plaque in arteries looks like, could it finally be time to start acting my age?
Might my story be a wake-up call for others?
As for denial . . . well, I’m working on it.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.