Monday, April 07, 2008

What is the good of the strongest heart?

After dancing three shows this weekend, I went to bed Saturday night exhausted. But it was the good kind of exhausted; our show was a smash hit and I was proud of what we'd accomplished. The fiancé was out of town, and Sunday was my first day in months where I could sleep in. And I had big plans for the day after I woke up: Finish painting the hallway, work out, maybe go running if the weather was still awesome ... and when the fiancé got home we'd planned to head to Sidetrack for some show tune therapy with a bunch of friends.


I woke up around 9:00 am Sunday with what I thought was heartburn. But when I climbed out of bed to get a drink of water, I was felled by a searing pain in my chest. An impossible-to-breathe pain that felt as though someone were squeezing my esophagus and my heart with both hands. A pain that radiated up through my left shoulder and the back of my neck with such intensity that it made me gag. A pain that made me think Holy shit. This is what a heart attack feels like.

I like to think I have a pretty high threshold for pain, and I honestly don't see myself as much of an alarmist. So I tried to be calm and rational. I found my insurance company's ask-a-nurse phone number and dialed it with shaking fingers. But when the nurse answered and I discovered the pain made it hard to talk, I lost most of my composure.

Once she heard my symptoms, the nurse told me to call 911 immediately. Which didn't help in the staying-calm department either. I've never called 911 before. And the prospect of calling 911 on my own behalf was rattling. People who call 911 have real emergencies. People who call 911 run up exorbitant emergency room bills. People who call 911 die.

But I called. And through my pain and my increasing panic, I managed to explain what was going on. The operator told me to stay calm and try to head outside to my front stoop to wait for the ambulance if I could. So I climbed into some dirty clothes off the floor and made sure I had my wallet and my keys and my cell phone, and I gingerly worked my way to the stoop in front of our building.

It's frightening how much goes through your head when you're sitting on a concrete step waiting for your own ambulance to arrive: Is this it? Am I going to die without saying goodbye to anyone? At least it's a nice day. Should I call my family in Iowa and leave them thoroughly freaked out and helpless to do anything? Or should I wait until I know something? Or will it be too late by then? Should I leave a goodbye-I-love-you message on the fiancé's voicemail? Could I even get the words out?

Then I heard it. The siren. My siren. You hear sirens all the time in Chicago. And unless you have to pull over to let an emergency vehicle pass you, the majority of them don't even register on your radar. But when you hear a siren and you realize it's coming for you, the reality ... the fear ... the uncertainty ... the gravity all hit you pretty hard. By the time the EMTs came running up to me, I was collapsed on the step, clutching my heart and sobbing. Sob. Ing. If I had died right there, you know damn well I would have gotten a posthumous Academy Award next February.

And I didn't get just an ambulance. I got a fire truck too. And at least five people who interrupted whatever they were doing to race across town and disrupt traffic to come take care of me. Spilling stuff about my life all over the blogosphere notwithstanding, I'm not a big sucker for attention. At least not drama-filled attention. I hate to be fussed over. And I hate feeling like I'm being a burden. So on top of the fear, the panic and the sobbing, I was also thoroughly embarrassed. I think my first words to the EMTs were "I'm sorry."

The first thing they did was put an oxygen mask on me. Then they gave me a baby aspirin. Which in the back of my mind was actually kind of funny; it took five burly guys and two huge emergency vehicles to race across Chicago to deliver me an emergency baby aspirin.

Then they gave me nitroglycerin. And I was back to reality. Nitroglycerin is what they give people who are having serious cardiac emergencies. Nitroglycerin is the first desperate step toward a very uncertain future. Nitroglycerin, in my mind, is a reason to panic.

I'd told them my pain had been about an 8 out of 10 when they arrived, and when they asked me to rate the pain after taking the nitroglycerin, I told them I was maybe a 6 or 7.

And suddenly the emergency was over. Apparently, if I'd been having a legitimate cardiac emergency, the nitroglycerin would have had a profound and immediate effect on the pain. When it didn't, the EMTs downshifted to stroll-in-the-park mode as they casually buckled me into a gurney and loaded me on the ambulance. The emergency was over as far as they were concerned, and from this point on their job was little more than a shuttle service. But the fact that I wasn't having a medical emergency still didn't change the fact of the pain. The crushing, gagging pain that continued to radiate across my chest and my shoulder.

The ambulance ride wasn't all that remarkable. Mostly because of the pain. And because I live three blocks from a hospital. (But they still used the siren. And I could see all the cars who pulled over for me out the back window as we drove past them. Which, all things considered, was kind of cool. In a riddled-with-guilt-because-I-obviously-wasn't-dying kind of way.)

And any doubts I had about not dying were erased when we got to the emergency room; one of the admitting nurses actually finished his sandwich before asking me about my symptoms and my medical history. (In fact, I was asked by four different people between my front stoop and the emergency room if I used recreational drugs. Which I initially found disturbing, but I guess people sick enough to ride in ambulances probably have any number of reasons for being there and the medical staff needs to be able to narrow down the causes.)

Once I was triaged, I was wheeled to one of the trauma rooms, where I was drained of blood, pumped full of oxygen, X-rayed, covered in stickers and hooked up to enough wires to make me a convincing extra on The Sopranos. And then I was left to wait. And wait. And wait. So I did what anyone else in my situation would have done. I took a picture of myself with my camera phone.

And then I saw some familiar faces peering at me from the hallway. The fiancé's cousin happened to be in town this weekend, and he and his girlfriend happened to have stopped by the house right after the ambulance whisked me away. The fiancé's developmentally disabled brother lives with us and he'd witnessed my whole breakdown and dramatic exit that morning, which I know thoroughly freaked him out but I was hardly in a position to comfort him or give him any information about where I was going. Between the three of them, though, they figured out where I might have been taken ... and they showed up within an hour to keep me company. Which was pretty freaking awesome.

We waited for almost six hours while my tests were run through the lab. So to kill time, we took pictures of stuff. Like the blood spots between my legs. I have no idea how they got there—or if they're even mine—but we found dark humor in the theory that I'd perhaps lost a baby:

Here's the finger monitor I had to wear. The cable attached to it wasn't very long, so every time I moved my hand I did something to irritate the machine it was attached to, which gave us an annoying chorus of beeps:

Here are the cables and stickers that covered my chest and even my ankles during my little emergency room adventure:
While all these cables were a conduit to vital information about my body, they were a frustrating impediment to peeing. Have you ever tried to hold back a gown and a wad of cables AND hold down the elastic waistband of your underwear AND aim your buick into a pee cup while your index finger is swathed in bandages with a cord coming out of it? I didn't think so. And I did it all without getting pee anywhere except where it was supposed to go. Which means the judges will have to give me a 10 for execution but maybe only a 6 for style.

Here's the monitor that everything was attached to. Technically, the relative straightness of that bottom line doesn't bode well for my overall health. But I think the damn thing had a short in it, because at any given time, any one of those three squiggles was flatlining on me:

Here's the view from my trauma room. The little sign on the wall says Hallway Bed #1.

And here I am pretending to look dead. Which was funny at the time, but now it's really not. I was cold in the emergency room, so one of the nurses had put that blanket on me. To make room for all the cords, she'd just draped it over one shoulder, which makes me look like some kind of low-rent ambassador or casual Friday cultural attaché, don't you think?

Around 3:30 the doctor came in with his diagnosis. Which was more of a non-diagnosis, actually. He'd "ruled out everything fatal" like a heart attack or a blood clot in my lung. But he still couldn't pinpoint what was causing the pain. His best guess: a torn muscle in my ribcage. Or a microscopic fracture in a rib bone. But he gave me prescriptions for Vicodin and industrial-strength Ibuprofen and sent me on my way with strict instructions not to exert myself. (Dear doctor: I can't even blink my eyes without gasping in pain. It's a safe bet I'm going to avoid anything with even a whiff of exertion.)

I had just shuffled home and lowered myself into my favorite chair when the fiancé burst through the front door, home at last from his long trip and slightly shaken by the text messages and voicemails he'd received once he'd turned his phone back on. And to bring the day's emotional roller coaster full-circle, I sobbed when he scooped me up and held me in his arms.

From the ask-a-nurse call to the nitroglycerin, I'd operated under the assumption that there was a realistic chance I could die. Which had solidified a lot of emotions I was already pretty sure of. Like how important ... how vital ... how completing the fiancé is to me. I waited 38 years to find this man, and I am not about to let something stupid like death take him away from me. Fuck you, death.

And now all that's left is the healing. Which will probably take a long time. But I have a devoted man who picked up my prescriptions for me and got me blankets when I was shivery and made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I got hungry and this morning brought me an ice cream and strawberry and blueberry and cookie sundae for breakfast just because I thought it sounded good. And I have a TiVo cache full of Modern Marvels episodes to keep me company. And, unfortunately, a brain full of Vicodin, which I fear has suppressed my don't-be-long-and-boring filters on this blog post. So I'll stop now and fill you in on the funnier parts of my little medical adventure when I'm a little more clear-headed.

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