Women and Heart Attacks – You’ve Heard The Sobering Statistics, But Have You Really "HEARD" Them?
I was looking up at her, struggling to understand what was happening. I saw her mouth moving but heard nothing. I remember thinking how pretty she was with her blonde hair loosely pulled back from her confront. She lifted my head with hands that were cool to the touch, bent down to meet me, and directly spoke into my ear. “You’re going to be fine. I’m going to put these headphones on you now . . . stay with me . . . stay with me . . .!” I then felt the jostling thrust of the helicopter as it was lifted into the sky. That was the last thing I remember before my world turned to black.
In remembering that Saturday morning over three years ago, I continue to be amazed. My symptoms had in no way sent out warning signals of an impending heart attack. I was just tired! I had been working a lot so it was perfectly explainable fatigue. My upper arms ached, but again, explainable, and nothing that a nice hot shower couldn’t cure.
As an interior designer I had been installing furniture in a form home that week, so my “symptoms” all made perfect sense. They made perfect sense to me, that is, until about 4:00 A.M., Saturday morning, when I woke up from a sound sleep for no apparent reason. Within minutes I became nauseous, short of breath, and was sweating profusely. I knew that I was in it . . .I just didn’t know what “it” was! I was young, healthy, never had experienced any chest pain, jaw or neck pain, no pain shooting down my left arm . . . already nevertheless, I knew that I was in real trouble, as in call 911 kind of trouble.
It all happened so fast. I had entered into a world of terms and conditions that were foreign to me. Terms like LAD and RCA, angioplasty, septic shock and stents . . . words I knew existed, but for someone else. Certainly not for me. I was caught unprepared in knowing how to react to the new circumstances in which I found myself. No matter how hard I tried, or how desperately I wanted to, there was no way to wrap my mind around what had happened, or “un-ring” the bell and return to my pre-heart attack days!
In the weeks and months that followed, I experienced a myriad of feelings. I felt thankful to God for answering the multitude of “beggy” prayers that had been offered up on my behalf, thankful to the countless doctors and nurses whose healing hands, compassion, and giving hearts had been such a gift . . . to my ‘never-say-uncle’ family and friends who faithfully camped out at the hospital and held vigil by my bedside for days, refusing to give up on me. Yes, so thankful! Also fearful, hopeful, wanting answers, NOT wanting answers . . . often engulfed in groups of anxiety and sleepless nights. Thankful I had seemingly beaten the odds, but really angry that I was now included in a statistical bank I never asked to be a part of in the first place!
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the roller coaster ride of emotions I was experiencing was very shared. With no improvement warning my life had suddenly been interrupted, my innocence forever stripped away, I had been forced to come confront to confront with my own mortality . . . and discover first hand the many stages of grieving you go by when you experience a great loss. The loss of your own health!
I am well aware that I am not the only one who has had a life altering, totally unexpected event in their life . . . but when it is you going by it, right or wrong, you feel secluded and ill-equipped to deal with your own feelings, let alone the feelings of those closest to you. In reality, my heart attack affected all of us, family and friends alike, and responses were varied. While some hovered over me monitoring my every move and mood, others distanced themselves as if to say, “If I don’t concede it, it isn’t so!” They too had been traumatized, and like me were looking for answers. Each of us needed time. Time to find our own path, in our own way, that would rule to a place of some kind of understanding and acceptance of what had happened!
I completed a cardiac rehabilitation program and received a bright red T-shirt which announced to the world that I had indeed stayed the course. Outwardly I worked hard at assuring everyone around me that I was doing great, while inwardly I was filled with a lot of fear and unanswered questions. Most days, pen in hand, I transferred my inner most thoughts into my little black leather journal. I poured onto those tear stained pages my feelings of gratitude along with frustrations, all the while praying that I didn’t die before destroying the evidence that I had just so nakedly revealed. I searched unsuccessfully for articles from people who had experienced a similar experience to mine . . . looking for reassurances that I would one day be able to regain my life, that the feelings I was experiencing were normal, and that no, . . . I wasn’t going CRAZY. I was on a perpetual quest for answers. As a ‘survivor’ I wanted to know why I was nevertheless here? And the BIG question . . . What was my “purpose”?
I once read that when we need it the most, God’s grace will come to us like tiny stitches in torn fabric. In March of 2005, nine months after my heart attack, this was evidenced for me by an article which was splashed across the front page of newspapers around the World . . . the Terri Schindler-Schaivo case. All were asking the same question. Should they, or should they not remove her life sustaining feeding tube. The Schindler family had been locked in a decade plus long legal battle with their son-in-law over the care and custody of their then, 41 year old daughter. Terri had suffered enormous brain damage when she suddenly, at the young age of 26, collapsed at her home from what was described as a mysterious cardio-respiratory arrest for which no cause was ever determined. She was not on life sustain, she was not brain dead, but she was in a harsh vegetative state from which, according to most doctors, she more than likely would not retrieve. Opinion surveys were being taken. Individuals in addition as special interest groups and religious organizations were getting involved, demanding that their voices be heard. It seemed to be the number one topic around water coolers across this country, and in other places. Conservatives and liberals alike were impassioned, taking staunch, unwavering locaiongs.
I was vacillating back and forth between the parents views and the husbands position. That is until I happened to read what later proved to be, for me, life changing words from a newspaper interview with Rick Warren, author of the book, ‘The Purpose pushed Life’. When asked his opinion on the Terri Schiavo case Rick Warren answered without hesitation. “The answer for me is clear,” he said. ” God put each of us here for a purpose, and that includes Terri Schiavo. We may never know or understand what her purpose is, but she has one. We all do. We are all necessary pieces of God’s question coming together in order to complete HIS plan. Why do we have certain talents, struggles, achievements and failures? We don’t know, but HE KNOWS. God has promised that we’re not here one day longer, or one day less than we’re supposed to be. You see, it’s really not about us . . . it’s all about HIM and for HIM.”
That March day was life changing for me. After so much searching I felt I had finally found the answer I had been looking for. It was alright if I didn’t know my specific “purpose” in life, or how my ‘piece’ would ultimately fit into God’s overall question. I didn’t have to know. God knew. He was holding the lid to the question box . . . and could see the big picture. The self inflicted burden of responsibility I had been dragging around for so long was suddenly being lifted. What a tremendous feeling of relief!
It has been over two years since I happened upon that interview. Since then I have continued to make strides in regaining control of my life, no longer allowing myself to feel like a victim. Of course I nevertheless view my heart attack as “a very meaningful event in my life”, but thankfully no longer allow it to be the “main event”, or define my identity.
Do I now have the luxury of assuming that a headache is just a headache? That muscular aches, nausea or fatigue are just that, nothing more? Unfortunately no, . . . and the reality is that I probably never will again. But today I’m happy, healthy, and would like to think much wiser than I was three years ago. I’ve learned that many of the things I once felt were important aren’t . . . and vice versa. I tell the people I love that I love them, often. I have learned how to not say yes when I want to say no, and that No. can be used as a sentence. I burn the designer candles and use the good crystal whenever I want, and remember to thank God for each new day. And I’ve learned that my life today is a tapestry which has been woven together by the choices I have made and the sum of my life experiences . . . all of them.
The issues surrounding women with heart disease are very REAL. Sobering statistics have now shown that:
* One in three women will die from cardiovascular disease
* Because the symptoms for women present themselves so differently, and so often go
undetected, more women will die from heart related problems than from the next seven
leading causes of death combined.
I, like so many other women, had heard these upsetting statistics in the past, but clearly had never really “HEARD” them!
Thankfully, great strides and many successes, have recently been made by the American Heart Association in an effort to considerably reduce disablity and death from cardiovascular disease, but there is much more work that needs to be done.FORTUNATELY our legislative leaders are beginning to listen because UNFORTUNATELY most have been ‘personally touched’ by this issue . . . either by a wife, mom, sister, daughter, co-worker, girlfriend, neighbor or friend!
It is definitely time that we ALL stand together to do in any case we can to better insure that heart disease research, prevention, and treatment for women in this Country becomes a top priority!