Fear Of (Heart) Failure

Well, I was in the hospital yesterday. Thought I was having a heart attack, though that turned out not to be the case. Funny thing is, I haven’t felt like that since I’ve left, even though they didn’t do anything for me besides hook me to expensive testing devices and tell me I’m not in cardiac arrest. Maybe I was just so anxious about it that the stress kept me in some sort of agitated state for a few days, and then having a doctor tell me I’m ok calmed me down. I don’t know, I’m usually not much of a hypochondriac, but that seems like the best explanation I can come up with.

I thought I’d write a little bit about the experience, not sure if this is really the best place for something like that or not, but hey, this is a low-traffic blog right? So the three of you who happen to read it, you’ll understand that I’m being pretty vulnerable here, eh?

This whole thing started on Wednesday of last week, which as you might notice was the second day of the year. I was sitting at my computer looking at VB.NET code, when suddenly I felt the insides of my chest do a strange, gooey flipping action, followed immediately by an intense tingling all over my body, down to my feet, through my guts, and up to my head. My head felt light and dizzy, kinda like a strong head rush for any of you stoners out there in the audience. I leaned forward with my elbows on the desk and sat there like that for something like 15 – 20 seconds, and the thought came to mind, "This must be a heart attack!" At the time there wasn’t any pain, but my body was drained of all energy. When it subsided, I sat there for maybe a minute, then got up, walked slowly and carefully to the living room (turning off the oven which was still cooking a frozen pizza on the way), and sat myself down on the couch, where I noted that the clock said 1:40 PM. My dogs climbed up next to me, and I pondered my fate. Was that really a heart attack? What else could it have been? I felt wrung out at the time, but not bad. My chest felt like it had been churned, but it didn’t hurt, not at the time.

And I prayed. I asked God for guidance, for clarity, for understanding. I was quite aware at the time that I did not blame God for the things that were happening to me, though I knew full well that He was and is always in complete control of the world and everything in it. I trusted Him and asked what I was supposed to do, knowing that He would take care of me, even if that meant that I was no longer alive in this world.

Actually, that’s not the beginning of the story. During the week prior, I had occasionally felt very light-headed, kinda stoned, at unexpected times. Not drunk, like I was uncoordinated or stumbling, it seemed that my coordination was still intact, but my perceptions were quite skewed, maybe something like the feeling I got from breathing nitrous oxide, or vaguely similar to the effect of LSD. Thing is, I haven’t done any mind-altering drugs (other than caffeine) since 1997. Seems like that’s enough time for all of it to be flushed out of my system.

So on January 2nd those previous incidents didn’t occur to me, but looking back the mental effect was rather similar. Though there had been no physical symptoms associated with the previous events, I believe now that the two were related somehow.

Anyway, back to the story. Sitting there on the couch I recalled the billboards that I’d seen on the interstate, "If you have chest pain, get help immediately!" I don’t think that was the exact wording, but it was something along those lines. I don’t know much about heart disease, but it made sense to me that the sooner I sought treatment the less lasting damage it would do.

But then I thought about my utter lack of health insurance. My mom has been strongly encouraging me to sign up for health insurance for many years now, but I always told myself I couldn’t afford it. I blamed the American political system for making health care such an elitist organization, and rebelliously chose not to take part in it. How was I supposed to afford the lofty price of insurance premiums as a small business proprietor? So when the time came that I was interested in going to the emergency room for treatment of what might have been a life-threatening condition, I was faced with the prospect of paying for treatment out of my own pocket.

After sitting there for a while I decided that since I wasn’t dying immediately I’d try to ignore the event. "It probably wasn’t a heart attack," I told myself, "or I’d be in a lot worse shape. Even if it was, it was such a mild attack that I can probably just ignore it, so long as I take it easy for a while." I took my time, eventually getting up and heading back to my desk. On the way from the couch to the computer I have to pass the oven, so I got the now-overcooked pizza out and brought it in with me. Looking at that pizza nearly made me retch, so it just sat there untouched for the rest of the day. I did a little work, showered, and generally puttered about the rest of the day.

I did, however, begin looking into health insurance that day. I got the idea that maybe I could sign up for health insurance, get the policy started, and then go see the doctor about this little problem I was having. Maybe that way the insurance would cover it and I’d be able to afford reasonable treatment. I looked at several things, but didn’t make any decisions that day. At that point my main focus was on Samaritan Ministries Christian Healthcare Network, a cooperative of people who help each other with their medical bills. I still think it’s a good idea, but in the end that’s not what I went with.

That night was quite a restless night. By the time I went to bed I was feeling occasional pains in my chest, and was quite convinced that this was the beginning of the end. I didn’t feel scared or nervous, my thinking seemed calm and reasonable (from my internal perspective, at least), but I was intently preoccupied with the feelings in my chest. The pain was never intense, never made me wince at all or anything like that, but it was definitely there. On the other hand, I was also aware of various pains in other areas of my body, surely just a sign of being 43 years old and not having taken extremely good care of myself in my earlier years. So I knew it was possible that these pains in my chest had been there all along and I just had never focused on them before, never paid them much mind. It’s not like they were debilitating, just noticeable. I finally got to sleep quite late.

The next few days I spent trying to be fairly calm, do as little as possible, but not make any big deal about this. If I was going to try to get insurance before I sought medical attention, then I couldn’t talk to anyone about this. Surely any sensible person would insist that I go immediately to the emergency room if I’m having chest pains, so to avoid that discussion I just never brought up the symptoms. I told people that I was feeling a little out-of-sorts, but that was it.

I don’t remember how all this really went specifically, but I do remember going to the Jazz Rep Lab on Thursday, to a meeting in Jeff City Friday morning, to the prison in Jeff City Friday evening, to band practice with Adam Willis and the gang in Jeff City on Saturday (yes, three trips to Jeff in 36 hours), and to church on Sunday morning. Each of those nights was somewhat restless, but it seemed to be getting better over time.

Still, on Sunday morning at church I was feeling pretty rough. I got up late and just had enough time to shower and drive, didn’t get around to eating anything. Since the incident on Wednesday I had laid off the coffee, but I was still drinking a fair amount of hot caffeinated tea, and Sunday morning was no exception. After the service I was hungry, and so I figured that some lunch would probably make me feel much better, so I went with the gang to D. Rowe’s, a fairly nice restaurant just down the street from church. As I was sitting there waiting for my food with the 10 or so people in our group, I started feeling really off, and then the whole tingling thing started up again. This time there was no chest pain or squishy feeling like before, and it only lasted a few seconds, but it was basically the same feeling in all other respects. There were two nurses at the table with us, and I battled with the idea of speaking up, saying that I needed to go to the ER right away, but for some reason I said nothing, just sat there quietly until the feeling passed. Ray, sitting next to me, tried to talk with me a few times, just polite small-talk, but I was unable to engage any conversation more than just a sentence or two. After a couple minutes the feeling had passed, but again I felt quite drained by the experience. Eventually our food came, I ate and slowly grew more conversant, but even by the end of lunch I was noticeably quieter than my usual self, and a few people noticed, asking me if I was alright. I again downplayed the incident, saying I’ve felt a little off for a few days, but didn’t make any mention of my fears concerning my heart, which had remained persistent since Wednesday.

As I was leaving the restaurant I felt rather concerned that the same thing would happen again while I was driving home, and that I’d be unable to drive while that was going on. Worse, I might have a full-blown heart failure on the road, causing a serious wreck. Still, rather than admit that something was wrong I just took the chance. Luckily I made it safely and uneventfully home. Within a few minutes the guys with the Putnam/Short Project started arriving at my house for practice. I helped them carry in the gear, quietly concerned that the exertion would trigger an attack, but it did not. We practiced for about three hours, with me wearily sitting on the couch for most of it, playing just enough to get through the songs. I helped hump the gear back out to the cars afterwards, then immediately went in to bed with a cup of hot, herbal tea. I read comic books for a short time, then tried to go to sleep, but found that though I was quite tired I could not sleep at all. My mind raced over the ideas of heart failure, surgery, stents, intubation, insurance, and little cameras running up my arteries through veins in my legs. I occasionally asked myself if I was afraid, and had to conclude that I was not. I didn’t feel anything that I recognized as fear. I’ve known fear before, but this didn’t seem like it. I just felt powerless, helpless, and without a good idea of what to do. I prayed continually, still convinced that God had the best plan for me, and that though I did not understand what was going on, nor did I like the situation, that God wanted me to stay with him through this and that He had my best interests in mind.

Eventually, after lying in bed for a couple hours, I decided to get up and write out a will, just in case I should perish before the night was over. I didn’t feel afraid of dying; actually I think I was more afraid of dealing with the hospital. I didn’t really want to die, didn’t want to hurt the people who cared for me, and especially didn’t want to leave my dogs alone in the world, but I knew that it was a possibility, and I was completely unwilling to seek treatment at that time. So the first thing I did when I got up was give the dogs fresh water and full bowls of food in case I didn’t make it and it took a while for anyone to notice. I didn’t want them to go thirsty while I lay in there dead.

And I wrote out a quick, simple will. It was rather an emotional experience, trying to give instructions to my friends and family on what should be done after I die. Once that was complete I began looking into insurance again, thinking that I might still find a way to get someone else to pay for the treatment of this condition. Eventually, sometime around midnight, I went back to bed. I lay awake for hours; the last time I remember looking at the clock was around 3:20 AM.

The alarm went off at 7:30 AM. I had planned to get up early, sign up for some health insurance as quickly as possible, then make it to my 9:30 meeting at MoRAP. I started working on the insurance forms online by 8:00, and by 9:15 I was still not finished. I called in sick to work and carried on with the forms.

I had hoped that the forms would ask me some simple questions about my previous medical history that I could answer and still come out seeming like I had no history of heart disease. Since I had no insurance for over 10 years, I had been to the doctor only very infrequently of late. In all respects I was in quite good health. Even my blood pressure had been called "great" by the last nurse who checked it, back in the fall of 2006. So if the form asked me if I had a history of heart disease I felt like I could confidently answer "No."

That wasn’t the question, though. The form wanted to know if I’d had any chest pain in the past two years. For me to say no to that would be an out-right lie. At one point in my life, many years ago, I would have felt no compulsion against lying, especially to a greedy insurance company that just wanted to profit by my fear and the unbearable cost of health care, or so I would have characterized them in my mind. Yesterday, though, the thought of checking the No box on that question made me cringe. I simply couldn’t say that I’d had no chest pain, especially since as I was sitting there I could occasionally feel the dull ache on the left side of my chest. I was quite convinced that I was on the verge of cardiac arrest, and I knew that I couldn’t lie on that form.

Finally I just checked yes and answered the following questions as honestly as I could, then I submitted the form, along with my initial payment, in hopes that they’d eventually approve the insurance. Having read all the fine print, as I’m wont to do, I was quite aware that the approval process could take up to two weeks, but that if it was approved it would be active retroactively to the day after I submitted the form. Any hospital visits due to injury in the intervening time would be covered; however, no expenses due to illness were covered until 15 days after the application was approved. That meant that even if they approved the application, and they decided not to consider my chest pains as a non-coverable pre-existing condition, I wouldn’t be able to submit a claim unless I waited for nearly a month to go to the doctor. I knew that was absolutely unrealistic.

For the first time I felt afraid. I knew I had to do something, and it had to happen right away. I began to cry, and went to God for help. My dogs came to comfort me, and I picked up the phone and called my friend John. He knew immediately that something was wrong, and fighting back the tears I asked him to take me to the hospital, because I was worried about my heart.

John’s a great friend. He came over immediately and drove me there. I cried much of the way there, and he was calm and peaceful as he always is, very comforting and direct. We parked in the crowded University Hospital garage and John pushed me to the emergency room in a wheel chair (wish we had a picture of that one!). After a very brief wait they ushered me into the process of getting checked out, blood pressure, questions about where the pain was, all that. They hooked me to an EEG or EKG or something like that, I can’t remember which (update: it must have been the EKG), drew some blood, and took chest x-rays, then wired me to a device with a monitor above my head that displayed all my vital signs. John came along for the whole process, and whenever we had a moment without the nurses he read to me from a book about the prayer of Jabez, and we talked about the things the author brought up and some of the difficulties we had with the book.

We sat in that room for a little over an hour, and eventually the doctor came back in with his student following him around and told me that all the tests had come up negative, that I was not having a heart attack. Just to be sure, he wanted me to come back on Thursday for a stress test, but he’s relatively convinced that my heart is not the cause of my symptoms.

To back-track a bit, I want to mention that I was still quite upset, quite scared, the entire time we were wheeling down the hospital halls, while I was telling the ER receptionist that I was having chest pains, and while we sat for those three or four minutes in the waiting room. Once the nurse came out to get us, though, I lightened up. I was still scared, but I was able to joke with the nurse about my blood pressure and things like that. When she asked if I’d been doing any illegal drugs, John said something about me eating habanero peppers, and we all had a good time talking about that. From that point forward I wasn’t nearly as scared. I don’t really know what was going on, but it seems that I was just relieved to finally be talking openly about the problem, not trying to pretend that it wasn’t there anymore.

Since we left the hospital, I have not had any real chest pains. I slept well last night. I’m still a little uncomfortable, but I don’t feel like I might just die anymore. I think the relief of having confirmation from the medical establishment that I’m not dying of heart disease has taken the pressure off of my mind, and has therefore relieved the physical pressure I was exerting on my own body.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to John, who took great care of me through this whole process. Without him I don’t know that I would have made it to the hospital at all, might have found some other reason not to go. I’m also very grateful for my dogs, who loved me and encouraged me when I felt like the end was near. I keep telling them that their dog prayers are the most effective prayers of all, and that they were instrumental in keeping me around through this.

Most of all, though, I’m grateful to God for giving me the strength to get through something like this. I know I didn’t do everything right. I should not have delayed in seeking treatment when the first thing happened on Wednesday. I should have talked to my friends about it right away. But I never lost my faith in God, and in the end things worked out very well for me. I know I’ll have staggering medical bills to pay over this, but I also know that God will provide, and that I’ll be able to clear those debts in a reasonable time.

I still don’t know what caused the original tingling feeling that I felt on Wednesday and again on Sunday. It could have been too much caffeine or lack of food, too much stress, some sort of virus, or something else that I may not even have considered. But I know that I feel much better now, and that I’m going in on Thursday for a stress test to completely rule out the idea of heart disease as the cause of all this. Assuming that goes well, as I’m confident it will, then I’ll just see if the symptoms return. If so, I’ll check in with a family doctor, see if I can work towards a reasonable solution.

So that’s my story for now. Anyone who actually took the time to read all the way through it deserves some kind of reward! I hope you don’t ever have to go through this kind of thing, and that you continue on a long and healthy life.

Have fun –