That first night out was almost harder than being in the hospital. I didn’t go back to my apartment when we left. My family had been staying at a hotel, so we all went back there when I was discharged. When we arrived, all I wanted was a shower. Not a hospital sponge bath, but a real life shower. I wanted to stand under the warm water for as long as I could. I wanted to scrub my face with soap and water, not a disposable face wipe. I wanted my hair to feel clean. It never occurred to me that something as simple as a shower would feel like climbing Everest.
Less than two minutes in, I wanted to get out of that shower as fast as possible. I was starting to feel nauseous and lightheaded. I couldn’t even stand up in it, I had to sit on the floor while I rinsed off. Thankfully, that morning my sweet dad had made me an appointed to get my hair washed and blown dry in the hotel. He knew I wouldn’t be able to do it myself.
“Quick, Cari, can you help me get out?” I asked my sister who’d been chaperoning me. “I’m so sorry, but I feel like I’m going to pass out. I need to get out of this shower. I don’t feel good.”
Carolina helped me out of the shower, into a towel, and rushed me to the closest bed so I could lay down. I started to feel better instantly, but my parents still called the doctor. The mixture of hot water and all the new medications I was taking had lowered my blood pressure, which is why I felt like I was about to faint. At that point it became clear to me that things probably wouldn’t go back to normal as quickly as I’d thought.
After I recovered from the shower, my parents took me to the hotel salon to get my hair washed and dried. Afterward we all went back to the room where some friends and family came to meet us for a room service dinner. By the time everybody left I was exhausted. I had done more in the past few hours than I had in over a week. When I got in bed that night, I remember thinking how nice it was not to have IVs on my wrists. I rolled over onto my side, tucked my hands under my cheek and fell right asleep.
Around 6:00am the following my morning my parents came to check on me. “Good morning, I’m okay,” I whispered, my eyes still closed. “I’m just going to sleep a little more.” It would be years later that my parents would finally feel like they didn’t have to check that I was breathing first thing every morning.
A few hours later I woke up, got out of bed, and had breakfast with my family in the hotel room. We went over the plan for the day. First, we’d go to my apartment to gather a few belongings to take back to the hotel. Then we’d go to my doctor’s appointment with a new cardiologist, Dr. Hooman Yaghoobzadeh. My original cardiologist (from before the cardiac arrest) never returned my parents’ phone calls, so my uncle recommended Dr. Yaghoobzadeh to us.
Quick side note: The fact that my original cardiologist never called back, turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Without Dr. Y (as I call him), I wouldn’t be alive today. Not only is he incredibly bright and dedicated, but he is overwhelmingly persistent. That will become very clear as the story continues.
A few hours after breakfast, we all got into a cab and went to my apartment. I already felt tired again. I didn’t realize until we got there that nobody (except Lizzie) had been to my apartment since the cardiac arrest.
When we stepped out of the car my doorman started to tear up, “Crissy! I’m so happy to see you. Lizzie told me you were okay, but I saw you go out on the stretcher. We’ve all been so worried. Thank goodness you’re okay!” He gave me a huge bear hug. I hugged him right back, and tried not to wince from the pain. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how much my ribs still hurt from Lizzie’s CPR.
It was a little spooky when we walked into my bedroom. My suitcase from our D.C. trip was in the middle of the room, half unpacked. It was like time had stood still. I racked my brain, trying to remember that moment when my heart stopped, but I couldn’t. I could remember walking into the apartment. I even remembered being in my room, but everything after that was completely blank.
When I went into cardiac arrest, all my clothes had been cut off in the emergency room. So all I got back I left the hospital were a few pieces of jewelry: a necklace, my watch and one pearl earring. The first thing we did when we got into my apartment was look for the missing earring. They had been a gift from my parents on my eighteenth birthday. Perhaps I had been in the middle of taking it off when I collapsed? We looked all over my bedroom and throughout the living room. We searched under the couch and beneath the rug. We never found it. A few months later my dad took me to get a replacement, but I still wonder at what point I lost the earring. On the stretcher out of my apartment? In the ambulance? In the ER?
Once we determined the earring was nowhere to be found, my mom helped me pack a little bag of clothes and toiletries to take the hotel. I had lost quite a bit of weight in the hospital, so a lot of my clothes were too big. I couldn’t find a single pair of pants that would stay up. The following day my parents took me to The Gap to buy some new jeans.
From the apartment we all went to Dr. Yaghoobzadeh’s office for my first appointment with him. We spent two full hours with Dr. Y, as my mom wrote in her notes, it was a “very incredible visit.” He examined me, listened to the whole story, asked questions, took notes and started to lay out a plan of attack.
“I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said. So his first step was be to look at everything, to try and find as many answers as possible. He told us he was going to run a series of blood tests and scans of the body to look for anything out of the ordinary. He made appointments to visit a Hematologist, a Rheumatologist and a Lipid Specialist. He also told me that although they had opened one of my blocked arteries when I was admitted to the hospital, I still had two other blockages, so I’d have to go in for an angioplasty.
I was pretty much drained by this point, but the word angioplasty woke me right up.
“Wait, I need an angioplasty?” My mind instantly flashed back to the first time I was having a heart attack in the ER, and the doctor had explained the procedure to me. “Is that the thing where they put a needle in my groin?”
“That’s correct, they’ll be able to look at the arteries in your heart through an intravenous ultrasound that goes through a vein in your groin. Sometimes they can go through a vein in your wrist, but you have such little veins it’ll likely be your groin,” he explained. During the procedure they’d attempt to unblock both arteries and hopefully place a stent (a tiny tube) in each to keep them open.
I was officially terrified. I could handle all the appointments, testing and scans that were coming, but the angioplasty completely freaked me out.
The following two weeks were a whirlwind of blood draws, doctors, MRIs, ultrasounds, more doctors, CT scans, more blood draws, long naps, short walks, visits from friends and family, even more blood draws, and a few sleepless nights. The whole time I couldn’t get the dreaded angioplasty out of my head.
I asked everybody about it: all the doctors, the nurses, some of my dad’s friends that had had one before. I wanted to know exactly what to expect. Everybody told me it wasn’t that bad, and that the recovery was worse than the actual procedure (because you can’t move for six hours after it’s done). I didn’t believe them. A needle running through my groin up to my heart sounded pretty bad to me.
My angioplasty was scheduled for May 11, 2011. The night before I barely slept. We arrived at the hospital around 6:30am for the first appointment. I checked in and sat with my family in the lobby, waiting to be called in. I was so nervous I couldn’t stay still in my seat.
“Cristina Beltran,” a young nurse came out with a clipboard.
I looked at my parents and sisters, “Ok, here goes.”
They all got up with me and walked me to the end of the lobby, I gave them each big hugs and followed the nurse out into the prep room. Ok, here goes, I silently repeated to myself.