It’s been a year since the day I thought I was going to die. Mother’s Day 2017 started like any other day… well not really. I got tea in bed and handmade gifts and whatnot. There was family brunch and a walk on the beach. Then I put my kids before my heart health, and things went terrbily wrong.
We’d been on the same family walk countless times, but this is the only one I remember. The sky was blue, the air was cool, but not too cold. There were fluffy white clouds and the water lapped calmly along the shore.
I remember it so clearly because I took careful note of everything around me. I thought these were my final moments, and I wanted to be present for every one of them.
My father had his first heart attack in his 40s. His mom died due to a cardiac event in her 40s too. I’ve had an irregular heartbeat for years. It happens rarely and has always been considered benign. Nothing to worry about… for the most part.
On this day, on Mother’s Day 2017, I was experiencing the feeling that comes over me – my heart was racing. I sat down to wait for it to pass, but it didn’t. The techniques I had been given to break the spell weren’t working. Five minutes passed, then 10. I lay down on the beach in an effort to get it to stop. My watch was noting my heart rate – 212 beats per minute. My chest was beginning to ache.
My husband came to check on me. I was looking up at the blue sky – nervous but still feeling like it would pass. I asked him to go with the kids to bring the car to the closest lot. I felt the cool breeze on my face. 212 beats per minute. I looked up at the clouds floating by. I was starting to feel very peculiar. There were some black spots over my eyes.
Suddenly I felt very ill. Nausea rolled over me like a wave, but I didn’t get sick. My arm went numb. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. 212 beats per minute. 22 minutes and counting.
The sky was the most beautiful blue I had ever seen. And I thought, how awful for my kids – I was going to die of a heart attack on this beach, on Mother’s Day of all days. But it was a beautiful day. How lucky was I to at least have this beautiful day. I thought about all the ways there are to die, and that this was nice – cool breeze, soft waves, white clouds, and peace.
It was strangely peaceful.
A few more minutes passed and I realized I might not die if I was able to get myself up and walk to the car, where I could get to the hospital. And even if I was going to die, at least I would be there and not on the ground with my kids watching nearby.
I was dizzy, and felt sick and my arm was as heavy as a log hanging off the side of my body, but I managed to get up and start wandering away from the water, towards the city. And my family. And maybe, to another day. My heart rate suddenly reset to a normal rate. I thought I was going to throw up again. I didn’t, but the feeling lingered for hours. My arm stayed numb for hours too.
Once at the car, I got my husband to drive us home and texted a friend to see if she could watch the kids so we could go to the emergency room. It was decided that he’d drop me off and take them over there – then come back to me.
At the hospital, they determined that I did not have a heart attack, though my symptoms were consistent with a cardiac incident. What they could not understand is why I didn’t call an ambulance? Why didn’t I come straight to the hospital? Why did I put my kids before my heart? Why was I so worried about upsetting my kids that I might have cost them their mom, if this HAD been a heart attack?
I don’t have a good answer for that. Other than, their wellbeing was more important to me than my own.
So many women sweep the signs and symptoms of heart problems under the rug, choosing instead to put the care of others first. And because of that, more women than men die from heart-related causes every day. And if we do go to the hospital, our symptoms are often written off as something else – anxiety, indigestion and so on. I didn’t have that problem, but health advocacy is something I do every day for my daughter. If I didn’t, I might not have had the words to describe what I was feeling. I might not have had a watch and app that records my heart so I am able to show, not just tell what happens when it races.
And I have spent this year choosing to add myself to the list of things to take care of. I wouldn’t say I put myself first all the time, but my health and my emotional well-being are at the top of my list. Because I want to see as many Mother’s Day’s as I can.
Read up so you have the words to describe what’s happening if you find yourself in a situation when you know you are feeling “not right” or “off”. Give yourself permission to be uncompromisingly selfish – even in the middle of your child’s most important moment ever – and call 911. It might be what allows you to be there for the next most important moment ever, and all the inconsequential ones in between. All the little moments that make up this beautiful life we get to live.
I have been paying much closer attention to all those little things these last 12 months, and trust me, you don’t want to miss a thing.
To find out more information about women’s heart health visit: http://www.heartandstroke.ca/.