Like most people, I am wary of bad news phone calls: The school nurse saying my daughter has just thrown up all over the hallway floor; the doctor asking me to come in for a second mammogram because she spotted some anomalies in the first; a neighbor letting me know that our dog has run away and is dodging between cars in the intersection near our house.
But the phone call I received two weeks ago was one I never expected to get: My mom called me from the hospital to tell me she’d just had a heart attack.
“What?” I screeched into the phone after she delivered the news, trying to process what she had just told me. Cancer has run a nasty course on my side of the family, so I thought that was our thing to watch out for. But a heart attack? I’d never even considered it.
After reassuring me that she was OK, my mom told me how her nightmare had unfolded. She had been feeling minor chest pain off and on for a few days but just chalked it up to being a little out of shape. But that day, when she was on her morning walk and had to stop twice to rest on a hill she usually had no trouble climbing, she knew something wasn’t right.
She decided to turn around, head home and start looking online for an urgent care center – all precautionary measures, of course, because in her mind, she wasn’t the kind of person who could actually have a heart attack.
About 10 minutes after getting home, she started feeling really lousy – more than just nausea, it was heavy sweating, arm tingling, fuzzy hearing, unclear thinking and crushing chest pain.
“I think I’m going to faint,” she told her sister, Sally, who had been with her on the walk.
Immediately, Sally got her onto the floor and had her husband call 911. Within minutes, paramedics were at my mom’s side. By the time they got to a hospital, there was a team of cardiac specialists ready and waiting for her.
They did what they do – I can’t even pretend to understand it – and placed a stent in one of her arteries, which they discovered was 99% blocked. Her doctor came in to talk to her a few hours after the surgery.
“You are now one of the few people in the world who knows what a heart attack feels like,” he said. “If you ever start feeling like that again, get yourself straight to a hospital.”
It’s a gift of knowledge my mom isn’t taking lightly. The day after her heart attack, while she was still resting in the hospital, she sent each member of our family a link to a video by the American Heart Association titled “Just a Little Heart Attack.”
In it, a young working mother, hilariously portrayed by Elizabeth Banks, is getting her family ready for school. In between blending smoothies and editing legal documents, she is sweating bullets and just about passing out from chest pain. Finally, she calls 911.
“Hi, sorry to bother you,” she says sheepishly. “I think I might be having a little heart attack.”
My mom said she’d seen that video a year ago and watched it over and over because she thought it was so funny. But it came to mind as her heart attack symptoms started. “That video was magic for me,” she told me later. “If there’s anything that probably saved me, it was watching that.”
February is American Heart Month. Regardless of whether you think heart disease is a problem in your family (I certainly didn’t until two weeks ago), please visit the American Heart Association at heart.org and familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
And then do what you can to keep your heart healthy.It might be the only thing standing between your family and a phone call they wish they’d never had to take.
Julia Ditto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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