Cristina's Heart Scar, Chapter 4: The First Heart Attack, Part 3

I remember asking Sarah to call my mom, tell her I was still in the hospital, and that they think it might be something heart related. I specifically told her, “Don’t mention the words heart attack right away and don’t scare them. Use a lot of medical terms, tell them my Troponin levels are high. Just don’t say heart attack yet.”

Meanwhile, I was being hooked up to an IV, getting leads for an EKG, preparing for more blood work, and about to get an echocardiogram (sort of like an ultrasound of your heart).

Sarah, who remained insanely mature and calm during all of this, spoke to my parents, gave them an update and assured them that she would stay by my side through everything. Of course the minute my parents hung up with her, they called all my relatives in the city and within thirty minutes my aunts and uncle were at the hospital too.

When Sarah finished talking to my parents she came back to my bed where another doctor was explaining what would happen if I actually was having a heart attack.

“If it turns out that this is a heart attack, we’ll have to take you to the hospital uptown to the cath lab for an angioplasty.”

“What is that?” I was well passed the point of nervous. I used to be incredibly scared of needles, and the mere thought that I’d have to go into some sort of surgical situation completely freaked me out. Just doing my blood test and IV earlier that night had been traumatic enough.

“An angioplasty is how we open up clogged arteries in the heart. If there is a blockage in your arteries, we’ll have to take you to our hospital location that performs this procedure,” she explained.

“How do they do that?” I needed more details.

She hesitated, I could tell she was trying not to scare me (which only scared me more!), but went on, “A doctor will go through a blood vessel in your groin with a tiny needle to access the arteries in your heart. They’ll open them up and probably place a stent, which is kind of like a like a little spring, to keep them open.” I think she could see the terror in my face because she added, “It’s not as scary as it sounds.”

It sounded terrifying! A needle! Through my groin?! To my heart?! WHAT?! (Little did I know that I’d become an expert in this procedure, getting it done multiple times. But more on that later.)

“There’s no way I need that, there’s no way. I’m not having a heart attack, I promise,” I reverted back to childhood when I’d get sick, but would tell the doctors I was fine because I didn’t want to get a blood test. I actually thought I could convince them out of giving me one. Here I was, at age 24, doing it all over again.

“Okay, try to stay calm,” the doctor said. “Let’s just see what’s going on first, before we jump to any conclusions.”

They ran my EKG and rolled in an ultrasound machine for my echocardiogram. The technician started squeezing cold gel onto my chest. I looked up at him, “I’m really really nervous. My heart is racing so much. Is that going to affect the test?”

He assured me it wouldn’t and continued on with his job.

“I can’t watch the screen Sarah, I’m too scared. Will you watch for me?” They allowed Sarah to stand right next to me the whole time. I turned my head towards the wall and Sarah kept an eye on the machine.

The technician was pushing pretty hard on my chest and I could hear all these noises. Beeps and clicks and what sounded like a heartbeat. I was getting fidgety and started to imagine the worst.

“What do you see? Does it look bad?”

The technician stayed quiet (again, scaring me more), so Sarah quickly responded to fill the air and calm me down, “It looks like a galloping horse! It’s just galloping along at good pace. That’s the sound you’re hearing, like hooves on the sidewalk. Gallop gallop gallop!” She said it in such a sweet sing-songy voice it completely calmed me down. I actually started giggling thinking of this horse in my chest.

After the test a doctor came over with my EKG results, “Everything looks pretty good here.” He studied my echo images, “This all looks good too. Your heart muscle looks strong and healthy.”

I felt a sigh of relief escape my body, “So I’m not having a heart attack?”

“I don’t think so,” he responded. “Were you sick at all in the past few days?”

“Yes! I was incredibly nauseous yesterday, I felt like I needed to throw up all day.”

He nodded his head and looked down at his clipboard. A few other doctors were also standing in the room. Finally he said, “It would be very unusual for somebody of your age and health to be having a heart attack. Your EKG and your echo images look perfectly normal. It seems that you may have caught a virus, which is why you were feeling sick. And that virus has caused an inflammation in the lining of your heart. This is called Pericarditis, and can be very painful. We believe the chest pain you’re experiencing is a result of that inflammation.” *

I was thrilled! I wasn’t having a heart attack, I didn’t have to go to the scary catherterization lab, and I didn’t have to get any needles in my groin, heart or otherwise.

By then all of my relatives had arrived at the hospital. After giving me hugs and kisses, they went to figure out next steps with the doctors. I was so relieved, I laid my head back on the pillow, closed my eyes for a bit and let the grown-ups handle the rest.

It was decided that I’d stay in the hospital for two nights for monitoring. My uncle got the name of a top cardiologist in the city, who I’d follow up with after leaving the hospital. The only treatment for pericarditis are anti-inflammatories, so I’d have to take Motrin everyday for the next week. As far as I could tell, the scariest part was over. I was going to be totally fine.

Sarah, my aunts and uncle all gave me huge hugs goodbye, told me to call if I needed anything, and promised to come back to visit first thing in the morning. Which they all did, along with my sister who took the train in from Princeton, Lizzie, and all my other amazing friends. They were there the following morning and the day after, to hang, eat, laugh, watch TV, and just distract me from the fact that I was in the cardiac care unit of a hospital.

I said it in my last post, but I’ll say it again and again, I am beyond grateful and lucky to have the family and friends I have throughout all of this. They make every hard moment a million times easier.

By my last night in the hospital I was feeling completely back to normal. I had been resting for 2 days and taking Motrin every few hours. That night I was laying in bed watching music videos (weird hospital knowledge: there’s usually a music video channel on hospital TVs), when the Katy Perry Firework video came on. There’s a scene in the video where fireworks fly out of Katy Perry’s chest. I remember thinking, “I guess all that weird chest stuff I’ve been feeling for the past year is related to this pericarditis thing.” (Which was completely wrong since the diagnosis was that it was caused by a recent virus.) But I was totally convinced that they discovered what was wrong with my chest. I felt so at ease about the fact that I’d be going to a cardiologist for follow up, and that everything was going to be monitored and under control. “This whole time, there actually was something wrong with my heart,” I thought. “But we found it, and it’s all going to be fine.”

The next morning I put my sweatpants from Friday night back on, my sister Monica and Lizzie came to pick me up, and we walked back to my apartment.

I worked from home for the rest of the week (doctor’s and boss’s orders). My aunt took me to the cardiologist a few days later. She did a full check-up and told come in once a month to follow up on the pericarditis. She gave me another week’s worth of Motrin, told me to hold off on exercise for a little, and that I could go back to work and regular life after my week off.

I left feeling great, thinking I was “cured.” I could go back to living my life! Five months later my heart stopped and I went into cardiac arrest.

xo Cristina

*While pericarditis was a perfectly logical and appropriate diagnosis, knowing what we know now about my heart coupled with the elevated levels of Troponin in my blood that day, it has been determined that it was in fact a heart attack I experienced rather than pericarditis.