Is This Really Happening?
The Verdino family: Dana, Jason and Anthony (front); Jason Jr. and Scarlett (back)
I was in the final trimester of my second pregnancy when something began to make my skin itch from head to toe — incessantly, voraciously, without mercy. The first time I mentioned it to the OB-GYN, he said it was likely allergies. Then I began to develop bruises from all the scratching, and sometimes I’d make myself bleed from scratching the bare skin so much. I did some research and found that a condition called cholestasis, which inhibits your liver from functioning properly and flushing out the bile, seemed a perfect match for my symptoms. I asked my doctor for a blood test, and two days later, the office called. The tests confirmed that I was experiencing cholestasis and they told me to head to the hospital for an induced delivery. I was right at 36 weeks. They told me that my condition could hurt the baby, could result in his being stillborn, and I needed to deliver NOW. So, I did.
Baby Jason came out fairly quickly, and quite easily, compared to my daughter, Scarlett, now 3. He was 6 pounds, 5 ounces — not bad for a month premature. We laughed about all my itching. One day, we planned to tell Jason about what he put Mommy through. I had no idea that there would be much more to tell.
A week after giving birth to my son, I awoke in the middle of the night and had a heart attack. Baby Jason was asleep in the middle of our bed, his soft spot filling up, his skin still spotted with red from coming into light, while big Jason, my husband, slept heavy on the other side of him. Scarlett lay peacefully in her bed, cradled in pink flowers and stuffed bears.
My chest felt like it was caving in on me, though it wasn’t. It was my heart squeezing the life out of me, desperately searching for oxygen. I think I have a high tolerance for pain because I try to convince myself things are never as bad as what they could actually be. I diminish the pain in my mind, and I accuse my body of blowing things out of proportion.
In those first two minutes, I insisted to myself that it was an anxiety attack or really bad heartburn, neither of which I’ve ever experienced, so they were feasible enough explanations. But I had nothing to be super anxious about. Okay, so I had a newborn, a 3-year-old, a career to get back to and a house to clean, but none of that was anything I didn’t welcome. Could it be that I didn’t know I had this much anxiety?
The pain got worse, far worse. In addition to the elephant sitting on my chest as I paced the bedroom, the searing pain began to radiate into my arms, back and neck. What the hell is this? I went over to my sleeping husband and nudged his arm several times as I held my chest. He was deeply asleep. So I said loudly, “Jason, I’m scared.” He slowly unfurled himself from wherever he had been and popped into a seated position. He held my hand while I spoke in puffs about my heart, my arms, my whole body.
I began sweating. I became confused. Not about what was going on, but that it was actually going on. Was this really happening? I don’t understand what this is.
“You’re having a panic attack,” he said. “It’ll be okay. Take deep breaths.” I assured him it couldn’t be panic, nor could I, in fact, take deep breaths.
I started crying. Out of fear, out of pain, out of sadness at the idea of not being around to see my children grow even more beautiful than they already were. I actually said to Jason, “I don’t want to die right now. Don’t let me die right now.” He told me to calm down. He rubbed my back, but I pushed him away because of the pain. I sat in a ball on the floor praying to the Gods of mercy to make it go away. The pain seeped up into my jaw, pain like I never knew the body could produce.
Still, I could not manage to say the words “heart attack.” It was impossible — I was only 35 and was within the average weight column on the BMI scale. If it wasn’t a heart attack, it was something with the heart. That much I knew. Besides, “something with the heart” was not quite as scary as “heart attack,” so I clung to the notion for the next few minutes until the pain began to subside a little. I took aspirin, drank water, and Jason helped me back into bed. “I’m okay. I’m okay. It’s heartburn, probably.”
A healthy, 35-year-old mother of a newborn having a heart attack is not something I had ever heard about before.
As far as I was concerned, that experience could not exist. I wasn’t the type of person to die young. It wasn’t in the cards. Anyway, I had heard heartburn can feel like a heart attack, and if it was really a heart attack, how could it just pass through me, then let me fall back to sleep?
A few hours later, around 6:00 in the morning, the pain was still there — though not nearly as bad as at its climax. There was pressure and sharp pokes within the left side of my chest. Jason was getting ready to go to work, the children still asleep. I thought about facing the day with them, with this pain, with the fear that it was more than lingering heartburn. I’m tough, but not that tough.
I told Jason I wanted to go to Urgent Care, “for peace of mind,” I said. “Will you please go with me? I’m sorry.” And I was sorry. I didn’t want him to miss work, especially if it was only to appease my neuroses. So, we dropped the babes off at my parents’ house, assured them I was likely overreacting and that we’d be back shortly.
Shortly turned out to be a whole week in the hospital. They had done a cardiac enzyme test at Urgent Care and found out that, indeed, much to their surprise, I had had a heart attack. After a speedy ambulance ride to the hospital, I had an echocardiogram, chest x-ray and a very uncomfortable coronary catheterization, which found a tear in my LAD (left anterior descending) artery. Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), is another name for this phenomenon.
Eighty percent of SCADs occur in women, 20 percent to 25 percent of those happen postpartum. Evidently, this is one of those rare things that happens to women postpartum, and doctors have little idea why. My cardiologist suggested we try a few medications to slow my blood flow to allow the artery to heal. A year later, I went in to see my cardiologist for an exercise stress test, and voilà — I was fine. My artery healed itself.
Still, I was concerned it could happen again and, needless to say, I was terrified throughout my next pregnancy with Anthony. The two weeks that followed his birth were the most stressful weeks of my life. Here was this beautiful, tiny baby, rosy pink and wrinkly, and here was his mother wondering if every twinge in her chest could be the beginning of the end. I was lucky once, but what if I weren’t so lucky the next time? I imagined my artery, splintered from creating a life inside of me, my blood trying to push its way past the shredded tissue.
I wanted to close my eyes, and upon opening them, those two weeks would be gone. Just as one would wish to skip over the debilitating mourning of a loved one, to just get to a place in the future when it doesn’t hurt so bad.
But, then, what is recovery without the passage of time? How can we heal if we stop feeling? The fear and the sadness can be overwhelming, even crippling, but if we make it through the hardest part, we might find that we are actually invincible, at least our hearts are, metaphorically speaking. I think I will always fear another heart attack, of leaving my world and my children too early, but I also know that no matter what happens in the future, I have today. Life goes on and on and on, and life is pretty good.
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