I was totally oblivious to the possibility of a heart attack, or even the symptoms – and how to tell if it is in progress.
Despite this, I am lucky. While going through a heart attack, I managed to drive myself and my wife to the hospital. Her concerns about driving didn't really strike me, I had doubts about the symptoms truly being a heart attack. So, I went ahead and drove with a promise that if I felt worse I would pull over and call an ambulance on my cell phone. I managed to get to the hospital.
Never again. I'll describe the symptoms and what happens (at least to me) and advise you: if you go through something similar, do not hesitate – call an ambulance. If you drive, you are putting yourself (and everyone else on the road) in danger. I was lucky, but will never repeat this again.
Here's how it all started. I had been feeling poorly for three days. I can't define it any better than that – just felt "not right". Not much in the way of energy, wanted to rest a lot. On the fourth day, I decided to get off my a** and get something done. Sitting on the sofa just isn't me. To the backyard I went and pruned several trees (looks great now, by the way). I was out there for a few hours, cutting and gathering the tree limbs and leaves. It was a hot day and felt a slight tightness in my upper chest – right in the middle. Just above the tightness I felt a not near-burning sensation. Thinking I was just over doing it in the heat, I asked my wife for a cold drink of water. Didn't help. Neither did a second.
I persisted and cut down a few more tree branches and gathered them into the pile.
Sat down to rest and asked for more water. The tightness and hot throat sensation did not go away. My arms were already feeling heavy – but I was also lifting a reciprocating saw and climbing a ladder to get to the branches. I thought it just natural that my arms would feel a bit heavy after all that work. However, I noticed a slight tingling and numbness in my left arm – just below the shoulder to just past the elbow.
I turned to my wife and mentioned this. "Maybe we should go to the hospital, this might be a heart attack", I told her. "Ah, never mind, I don't think it is.". Another gulp of water, and no easing of symptoms. "Sorry, dear, I think we need to go to the hospital. I may be wrong, but would rather be safe ..."
Here's where it gets stupid. I really wasn't sure of the symptoms. I had never heard them described this way. I expected a lot more pain. I expected a near-blackout experience. My thoughts were that going to the hospital was more preventive than necessary. That's why I decided to drive myself (my wife does not drive). Dumb idea. Not only did I put myself and my wife at risk, I also put everyone else on the road at risk. An ambulance or anyone else to drive you to get medical assistance is the right way to do this.
When we arrived at the hospital, I pretty much had to tell them my entire medical history. Despite this being a long weekend, there really wasn't many people in the waiting room and we got in fairly quickly.
I was on a heart monitor quickly. The nurse took poked me about half a dozen times to find a vein that would give her enough blood for the lab tests. My veins are pretty much all collapsed from years of being poked for blood donations and my own health issues over the past ten or so years. Not only collapsed, there are tons of scars. Just from this past weekend, I now have about a dozen new bruises and a new "divot". One of the nurse's attempts was quite painful. My left wrist is now swollen and deep green/blue – nurse called it a "blown out vein" ...
Blood tests confirmed the presence of troponin ... an enzyme that is present with a heart attack.
Next process was a procedure called an angiogram. That is invasive. They inject a dye near the heart and then monitor how much of that dye gets through each vein and artery. That is how they determine the percentage of blockage. In there is blockage, they can insert a stent during the same procedure. If the blockage is extensive, they will schedule a separate procedure for bypass surgery.
Before the angiogram, they prep you by shaving your wrist (right hand). They also shave your groin area ... that is just in case the wrist is unsuitable to insert the probe to deliver the dye. Uh ... shave my groin area? Gheez, 'lil Andy now looks like a grub worm with a mohawk. If the wrist insertion point does not work, they have two additional areas they can insert the probe. The first would be on the right side of the groin, the second on the left side of the groin.
An angiogram takes roughly one hour. You are given an anesthetic at the insertion point (wrist) ... other than slight discomfort, you really don't feel much. They also give you a general "happy" injection – you are still aware, but really don't care. During the hour long operation, the biggest issue is slight claustrophobia from all the monitors and devices circling near your head and upper chest area. Once the procedure is done, the doctor will let you know the result of the procedure.
Then it is off to the recovery room for at least two hours.
Now the painful part kicks in ... my wrist was used for the probe. They cut into the skin and cut an artery – the probe is inserted into the artery and then winds its way up your arm and across your chest to your heart. Once they remove the probe, they have to make sure the artery is well healed and sealed. To do that, they use a plastic clamp. That's the painful part. Gheez, that thing hurts. There just isn't a comfortable position where it doesn't hurt. Fortunately, for most of the two hours in the recovery room, the "happy" injection has not completely worn off, but it still hurts. The clamp is on for 1 hour and 15 minutes. They then gradually loosen the clamp over a 50 minute period until it is completely off – they then replace the clamp with a compression bandage. The compression bandage hurts a bit.
You can't eat while waiting for the angiogram. Waiting could take anywhere up to 12 hours. They are keenly aware of the hunger and have a meal ready for you after the operation. My operation ended at about 10:40 pm. I was looking forward to eating, but my meal had been prepared seven hours earlier and the nurses threw it out. I ended up with the kitchen dregs ... a dried out sandwich and a sealed piece of cheese and sealed small portion of diced peaches.
Throughout all this process, you are on a heart monitor. Depending on the department you are in, there are different heart monitors and each department only use their own preferred device. In the emergency department, I had three: one from the sub-acute department, one from the acute department. When they transferred me to a hospital room, the acute department actually changed the heart monitor to a portable unit while I was waiting for transportation to the room. In the cardiac ward, I was on a full size device, alternated to a portable device to go to the operating room, put on a different portable device for about 10 minutes while I waited my turn on the operating table, and then another portable device while being transported back to my room, and then a plugged-in device from that point on until released.
From the operating room, I was put on an IV drip. It was ordered for a total of 12 hours. Noisy device that woke all my room mates at about 3 am when I turned and compressed the IV line.
The hospital release process takes a few hours. They go through your new pills and all the warnings that go with that.
Even though this is normally a two or three day process, ask someone to bring you your own night clothes, fresh clothing, and their help to get you cleaned up. You can't do it on your own, and it is not the hospital's responsibility to make sure you wash, brush your teeth, or smell nice.
I have a good sense of humour. Having a heart attack didn't take that away.
There were several times that I wanted to get to the bathroom. I didn't feel like using a bed pan or urinal. So, I unplugged everything and went to the washroom. That brings the nursing staff to your bedside awful fast ... "dang thing kept flat lining", I said. "I unplugged it and went to the mirror to check I was still breathing" ... LOL.
The doctor that performed the angiogram had a good sense of humour too. He has to go through a process before starting so that you understand the risks and everything involved. When he was done, he asked if I had any questions. "Sure do", I said. "Were you drinking today?". Without batting an eye, he held out a trembling hand and said "just enough to calm this down ... oh, dang". We both roared laughing.
I did have a favourite nurse ... and she had a great sense of humour too. After recovery, the IV drip machine started beeping around 3 am. She came and quietened the device. I watched the buttons she pressed. When it happened again around 7 am, I pressed the same button – not the same effect though, beeping got faster. When she got there, I said I had tried all the different buttons. "You didn't find the 'blow up' button obviously, you are still here" ... LOL
A few jokes at the end before I went home ...
I want to emphasize that a heart attack or the possibility of a heart attack is no laughing matter. The process may last a few seconds, a few hours, or a few days. Ignoring it could end all that waiting for you. This is a dead serious issue. Become familiar with the symptoms and what to do about them.