I wish I could tell you exactly when or why it all started, but I can’t. Because I don’t know. Nobody knows. Not me, not my parents, not my doctor, not the NIH. I only have memories leading up to my cardiac arrest.
My mom remembers one Christmas, during my sophomore year in college, I was home for the holidays, and apparently I complained for a week about my chest hurting. For some reason I don’t remember that at all.
I remember the summer of my junior year, I was living in New York and interning at Brides magazine at Condé Nast. A few times that summer I remember staying up all night because my heart felt like it was racing. It never hurt, but it definitely felt like something weird was happening in there. I chalked it up to anxiety or that extra salty dinner I had a few hours before, and tried to push it out of my head so I could fall asleep.
Other than those couple of memories, nothing major really happened until after I graduated from college and moved to New York.
My first year out of college was a complete whirlwind (as I think most people’s are). After graduating, my best friend and I moved to Manhattan, ready to live in the city and take advantage of everything it had to offer. When I look back on it, it kind of reminds me of freshman year in college, but for adults. We were in a brand new city, making tons of new friends, attending every event or party we got invited to, and just having the time of our lives.
My first job was at a law firm, working as a legal assistant. I’d always wanted to work in fashion editorial, but magazines weren’t hiring at the time so I thought I’d follow in the footsteps of so many of my relatives and perhaps become a lawyer. Turned out that law was not for me. I worked hard (with super long hours), but I never felt any connection to or gratification from the work.
Needless to say, between the insane work hours and active social scene, a few months into my post grad life, I started feeling total exhaustion. I was always tired. Today I realize that exhaustion likely had something to do with my heart. But at the time I just thought I needed more sleep and more coffee.
Looking back, there were warning signs. Some nights I would lay awake because of a fluttering sensation in my chest. When I mentioned it to a doctor, she listened to my heart and told me it wasn’t uncommon to feel fluttering, that it was probably due to anxiety and exhaustion (which is often true). Another time I left work because I was feeling sharp pains in my chest and throat. I went to a doctor by my office who took an EKG, didn’t see anything abnormal and thought it could be acid reflux (another common cause of chest pain).
Every now and then when the pain or flutters were bad, I’d do what you’re not supposed to do. I’d google the symptoms. HEART ATTACK was always the first thing to show up in the results. “No way,” I’d think, “I’m not having a heart attack.” I’d still click the link though and keep reading. After scrutinizing every article and forum I could find, I’d deduce that I couldn’t possibly be having heart problems. The chances of a 22-year-old fit girl having a heart attack were almost zero. I’d pop another Tums and move on.
Soon enough I got used to my heart flutters and chest cramps. I told myself there was no way I had heart problems, and that I was fine. But the chest pains persisted. My friends could tell you, many times when we’d go out I’d end up stopping at a pharmacy before dinner to buy a pack of Tums or cough drops because my chest or throat was hurting.
A year into working at the law firm, I left to start a career in public relations. One week into my new job, after a year of feeling chest symptoms, I had my first heart attack. And even then the doctors thought it couldn’t possibly be a heart attack.
To be continued next week.
PSA. If you’re ever feeling something in your body, be sure to tell your doctors. I worried that maybe there was something wrong with my heart but never explicitly said that to a doctor, I think because I was scared. Nobody knows how your body feels as well as you do. If you suspect something is off or wrong, tell your doctor and ask for testing. Doctors have all the skills and knowledge to help us, but they cannot read our minds. As patients, it’s our job to tell our doctors what feels wrong, so they can do their job to fix it.