Not Your Average Heart Attack
It was Monday morning at 5:30 a.m. And just like any other humdrum Monday morning, I was sitting with that feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had a day full of client meetings and agency pitches ahead and expected an entire week of 10- to 12-hour days, so I was paying no mind to the pain radiating across my chest. I exercise vigorously every day of the week — including running, riding, snowboarding, hiking and strength training — so I attributed the pain to the normal muscle pain that I experience often. It never occurred to me that it could be anything else. Plus, I was distracted, more focused on my work tasks than myself, pushing through everything like always.
This particular morning — February 8, 2016 — was different, though. The kind of different that changes your life forever. To make the pain subside, I took two Advil and laid down to see if it would fade away, or if I could just ignore it. As I struggled trying different positions while massaging my chest, I began to experience increasing pain. I was fairly sure that 20 minutes had passed with no relief, when I finally began to think something might be wrong.
I got dressed and went to find Jim, my husband, who was on a conference call. In the short period of time it took me to get down the steps to the kitchen, I doubled over from the pain. The look on my husband’s face as I rattled off the symptoms told me that he was worried. It was only then that I started to consider that this was a little serious (but nothing too serious). My rationale was backed up by facts: I was only 40 years old; I was a vegetarian; I had no other risk factors; and I was completely healthy. So, my unwillingness to believe something was wrong was validated in my head. After some discussion, my husband decided to take me to the emergency room. We should have called an ambulance, but our decision was based on two factors:
- We lived in Colorado at an elevation of 8,300 feet on a dirt road. It was off a road famous for hairpin turns and steep grades that dropped 3,000 feet down into Boulder. I thought it might be faster if we drove. I was wrong.
- I didn’t really believe anything was wrong with me. I was still in denial — even though the symptoms all pointed to a heart attack. To me, that was impossible — something like that just couldn’t happen to me.
At the emergency room, they kicked into high gear taking blood, hooking up IVs and EKGs (electrocardiogram) and running the whole gamut of tests.
After a few hours, the ER doctor said that nothing was showing up in my blood work, but something still didn’t seem right to her. She wanted to keep me for observation. That decision to admit me was critical. If she had sent me home, which often happens with SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) patients, I might not have made it.
The hospital set me up in a private room. I was famished, so I ordered food and texted my oldest sister to let her know I had been admitted, assuring her there was nothing to worry about.
Hunger trumps everything for me so after I ate, I focused again on the persistent pain I was having. I wasn’t responding to a medication they’d given me because they thought I might have pericarditis. I was processing all this, when a cardiologist walked in and pulled up a chair. “Your blood work came back and there’s troponin in your blood. We need to rush you into cardiac catheterization,” he said. “We think you are having a spontaneous coronary artery dissection.” My whole world shattered. What is SCAD? What do you mean cardiac catheterization? How could this be happening? I looked over at my husband who was white as a ghost, mouth agape and dumbfounded.
As they prepped me and asked me to sign a release indicating that I understood the risk of mortality during the invasive procedure, I texted my sister telling her to let our mom know what was happening. At that moment, I regretted having not told my mom. If I didn’t have the chance to speak to her again, I knew she would be devastated, and it wasn’t fair for me to do that to her or anyone in my family. All I could hope was that I would make it out, that they could confirm the SCAD and that my mom would soon have the opportunity to set me straight about keeping her in the know.
The trip down the long, cold hallway to the catheterization lab is a blur. I woke up in the recovery room feeling groggy but happy, knowing I was in the right place. The procedure confirmed that it was, indeed, a SCAD and that the best treatment was to let the tear heal on its own — a less invasive approach.
However, the next morning, I woke with excruciating pain in my chest, arm and neck. They gave me some morphine and did an EKG. Within minutes of hooking me up to the EKG, the tech sprinted out of the room. I knew that wasn’t good. In no time, I was off to the cath lab for my second surgery.
I bluntly asked my cardiologist, “Am I going to die?” He looked at me in a matter-of-fact way and said, “I don’t know.” Then something strange happened. I accepted my fate. I wasn’t afraid. I thought, “It’s out of my hands now and nothing I do will change my outcome.” Acceptance is peaceful. It allowed me to go into the lab unafraid.
As they wheeled me into the cath lab, I made jokes. I told the interventional cardiologist that I was embarrassed that I was wearing the same outfit as yesterday, making light of the situation.
Again, I woke up in the recovery room, but this time I felt rough. Two procedures, so invasive to my body and heart, were hard to handle. As it turned out, the SCAD had completely blocked the blood flow to my heart. I had had a heart attack and I was now outfitted with two shiny new stents. Woo hoo, I was finally bionic! (Just kidding, sort of.) In addition, I had a hematoma the size of a grapefruit on my groin where they had inserted the catheter into my artery. The pain was off the charts as the doctor put pressure on the hematoma to get the bleeding to stop. I’d been through many things in my life, but that was the rawest emotion and pain I’d ever experienced.
By Day 3 I had stabilized, or so I thought. As I processed my feelings, it was like my whole world had been flipped on its head. I didn’t know who I was anymore. My identity as an athlete had been taken from me. There was a whirlwind of emotions.
But the party wasn’t over yet. I suddenly started to feel worse, like I was going to pass out. I told the nurse, but she told me I was just anxious and said I would be fine. I trusted her, but as time passed, I knew something wasn’t right. When I began to pass out, I pressed the call button and told my stepdaughter to get help.
Heather and husband Jim
It’s my understanding that the entire code team was in my room that day. My blood pressure and heart rate were dropping at a drastic rate. I believe I had a near death experience. I wasn’t afraid, though. I felt at peace, but I felt sorry for my family because I knew they would be sad. I wanted them to know I was going to be okay. Even if I passed, I would be OK and in a better place. My emotions were peaceful, the most peaceful thing I’ve ever experienced. I felt calm, accepting, and there was no fear. I didn’t fight to stay alive. I was just letting things flow when a thought popped into my head: Today isn’t my day to die. Then I became conscious again and saw the entire code team in my room, and my husband and stepdaughter crying. I was back. It wasn’t my day to go.
Since my SCAD, I’ve been sick with recurring pericarditis — in and out of the hospital at least four times, but never catheterized again like many other SCAD patients. Over two years later, I’m finally on a path to wellness with the right care and medication. I’m grateful for the amazing doctors at Boulder Heart who admitted me and identified the SCAD.
I made a decision to leave my stressful corporate job and move into a profession where I could give back. In addition to becoming a Certified Personal Trainer and owning a fitness coaching business, I’m now studying nursing. My focus is on helping cardiac patients and those who need to develop a healthy lifestyle.
Situations that bring you close to death change your perspective. Sometimes they bring more fear, sometimes less, but the important thing they do is to remind us how precious life really is and how quickly it can be taken away from us.
My advice to everyone — not just SCAD patients — is to get up every day, breathe the fresh air, hug your family members, tell people you love them, play with your pets and, most importantly, project love and kindness. I’m convinced this is the only way to be truly happy.
Good things always come along with bad things. SCAD changed my whole life. But, at the same time, it set me on a path to enlightenment, change, and gratitude.