Note: This is not a descriptive, or gory story, but it does include our writer’s experience witnessing her husband’s heart attack. If this topic is triggering for you, please be aware.
February is American Heart Month and I felt like it was an appropriate month to tell my story, our story. The interesting thing about life is you never know what the best, worst, or scariest day of your life will be until after it passes. It is only in reflection that you realize what has happened. In some situations, say the day you get married, or the day your children are born, you expect and plan for joy. You may even have party favors that declare it is in fact, “the best day ever”. Other days, you don’t see coming. For me, April 19th will forever be one of those days. You never know the scariest day of your life, until it happens.
The day had started out like any other day. We were working opposite shifts so we really only saw each other in the afternoons after I got done at my job. I was 28 at the time and my husband 39, we had been married nearly five months and were certainly still in the “honeymoon” phase of our relationship. We were really enjoying this commitment of forever we had just made to each other, and dreamed of the chance to have kids on the docket in the future. Little did we know that forever could have been shorter than expected.
That night we went for a run together at a local gym, we had planned on running 5k and 10k races that upcoming summer together. When we arrived home, I ate dinner and was ready for bed. But my husband wasn’t; he said he just didn’t feel right and wanted to unwind more. I headed to our room and got in bed, but our dog, a standard poodle, was being a diva and pulling the blankets off of me. Each time I started to nod off, she would tug at my pillow or nudge me with her nose until I was awake. Finally, I decided she was going upstairs to be with my husband. As I climbed the stairs, our dog nosed me from behind the entire way, as if she was saying ‘move faster’. I got upstairs to find my husband doubled over our coffee table, unable to catch his breath, and sweating profusely. He said he was nauseous. He said he was in pain.
In retrospect it was every warning sign of a heart attack. But he was 39, we were young, that couldn’t be happening. I let those thoughts poison my gut instinct that was telling me to get him in the car. I got him some fruit and the dog nervously paced the living room. He wasn’t getting better. I convinced him to get in the car, to go to the emergency room with me. As he put his shoes on, another wave of pain hit him and I jokingly said, “Take an aspirin, maybe you are having a heart attack”. My joke may have given us the precious minutes we needed.
As we approached the hospital, he made me park in the ramp instead of the ambulance bay. We walked into the ER, and were asked by a triage nurse what was wrong. I had enough of him blowing off the symptoms, and listed his symptoms off myself. Before we knew it, a team was bringing him back for an EKG. He sat, I stood, the room smelled sterile, it was off-white, he sat in a navy t-shirt and navy shorts, and I had a citrine yellow purse. The wheelchair was red. It is odd the things you remember.
The amazing ECG Technician gave no indication of panic, she moved swiftly, and she is still our hero.
A nurse kindly asked me to move into the next room, maybe twenty feet away. As I approached the room, I had the sudden urge to turn around. As I did, I made eye contact with my husband, as he took a deep breath and fell to the floor.
What happened in the next few minutes seemed to take a lifetime. He was having a heart attack, where there was restricted and blocked flow of blood in the heart. He went into cardiac arrest, where the heart stops beating. The professionals in that ER worked together in a delicate dance. He was in the hallway, not even in a room, and yet they all had the equipment they needed at their fingertips. They blocked him from the view of others which allowed my husband to keep his dignity. A passing nurse dropped her lunch to jump in and help, another ran to do chest compressions, and the small gentleman pushing the wheelchair jumped in front of my husband to catch his fall. I don’t remember specifics of what was said, but I do remember hearing, “We got a pulse!” The rest was a blur; as they got him on a gurney and into a room.
When the ECG Technician pulled me to her office and asked who I had to call, I was thankful that I had happened to know this woman for most of my life. This familiar face in a time of crisis helped keep me grounded. I couldn’t think; maybe my mom, maybe our priest…was this all really happening? I was silent. I remembered grabbing the shirt they had cut off of him and putting it in my purse, I reached around it to grab my phone. The technician helped me call my mom; it was a quick conversation: “Hi Mom, Dan doesn’t feel well so we are at the ER. It looks like it will be a long night, can you come keep me company? Check-in with security when you get here and they’ll bring you to me.” I couldn’t get myself to say what had actually happened. I sat there with the technician in silence; she was holding my hand, rubbing my back, explaining where we would go next as they worked on my husband.
Next, I was escorted up to the cardiac floor where they would perform surgical magic and give me my husband back. In the meantime, my mom showed up with coffee and cookies, and the security guard walked her off the elevator. When she saw where I was waiting, I could see her face drop. Her facial expressions turned straight to anger, and I can’t blame her, as she thought by my cavalier conversation that my husband had a sprained ankle or something. Nothing suggested it was this extreme.
The coming days and months felt like a waiting game.
One week out, ok we are home.
Two weeks out, new medications are down, new routines are down.
Three weeks out, we are pros at following the cardiac rehabilitation schedule.
I was almost a widow at 28 years old. I still can’t actually say it; typing it is one thing, but you won’t hear the words come out of my mouth. April 19th started out like any other day—I had no idea it would be the scariest day of my life. That’s the funny thing about impactful days, they come out of nowhere and leave an impression forever. I had no idea that five years later I wouldn’t ever want to watch a medical show where someone goes into cardiac arrest, or that a fire alarm would make me jump out of my skin, or that I would still be sitting with my husband on the couch with him healthier than the day we met. That day, I didn’t envision that he would be well again, with no side effects, and that we would have an amazing little girl running around our house.
Each year as the date comes closer I hold my breath just a little, I hug my kid a little tighter, and I call my husband incessantly to check in on him.
This February, no matter how young and healthy your family may be, I encourage you to take the time to know the signs of a heart attack, know how to act. If you have concerns about your loved ones’ health, trust your gut and talk to them about it. Consult your local hospital or cardiac care unit to learn more.
Be thankful for each sunrise you have together.