In retrospect (you’ll read why later), that first angioplasty was nothing. But at the time, it felt terrible. I hated that I was awake during the procedure - my nerves were a complete wreck. And even though I didn’t feel a lot of pain, I could still feel what was going on.The whole thing was very unpleasant - but all in all, I was grateful to hear that the procedure went very well. The doctor was able to open two blockages in my arteries and placed two stents (tiny spring-like tubes coated in medicine) to keep them open.
When I came out of the operating room, the doctors explained to me that it appeared that I had an immense buildup of plaque in the arteries, which considering my age, health, and diet didn’t make sense. But given that my tests were all coming back perfectly normal - Dr. Y had to treat me for what it looked like: plaque. I began a regime of cardiac medicines that he explained I’d probably have to take for the rest of my life. The next day when I left the hospital, a little sore and limping from the angioplasty, I again had the feeling that the mystery had been solved and soon enough I’d be good as new.
A week or so after the angioplasty, Dr. Y told my parents that I could slowly start trying to ease back into my normal life. I was only 24 years old and summer was around the corner. He was just as concerned with taking care of my mind as my body - he wanted me to be happy, to have fun, to continue living my life.
So at the end of my recovery I went home to California with my parents to spend a couple weeks resting and recuperating there. In early June I flew back to New York (by myself, I might add!) and went back to live in my apartment with Lizzie. My sister had an internship in the city, so she was living with us too - which was so much fun! I was already starting to feel myself again.
I took my medicines everyday, I kept a healthy diet, I worked out, and I paid attention to anything I was feeling in my chest. Apart from the medications, I was pretty much back to my old life. I remember the first time I met friends for dinner, they were shocked at how healthy I looked. I remember late nights out with my sister dancing at a rooftop bar with her college friends. I remember hours of walking around the West Village after brunch and not once feeling tired or out of breath. I remember thinking I was totally back to normal.
Quick side note: At the time of my cardiac arrest I took a medical leave from my job. After much discussion with my parents and doctor, I decided to quit the PR job and start fresh. That summer I wrote freelance while I looked for a new full-time job.
That year my parents had planned a family trip to Europe. In May we weren’t sure if the trip was going to happen, but by mid-June I was feeling so well that we kept our travel plans. Early July my parents, sisters and I all went off to Italy. Everybody was still very careful with me, but we were all so thrilled to be together, traveling, and in a happy setting. Such a contrast from just three months earlier in the ICU.
And the truth is, we all really needed that trip. We needed the summer sunshine, the gelato, the long days by the pool and Italian feasts by candlelight. We needed to be distracted by art and music and architecture. We needed colorful umbrellas on the sand and winding little towns with cobblestone streets. We needed the delightful sound of Italian accents and heaping plates of spaghetti every night. I needed to keep my family happy, to not worry them, and make sure they were having the best time.
So when I jumped into the sea - just as my sisters and father had - and felt my breath catch in my chest, I attributed it to the cold water. And when I walked up the short but steep little hill in town and felt a quick shot of pain in my throat, I told myself it was in my head. When I was so tired I had to sit down to rest after less than thirty minutes of walking around Rome, I worried something might be wrong. But I didn’t say anything. Just wait until you get back home, I would tell myself every time I felt a twinge in my chest. If it’s still there, then you have to tell Dr. Y.
After two weeks in Italy, we all flew back to New York together. Everybody was happy and tan and well rested from our vacation. I pushed the fear that had been building out of my mind and told myself I was imagining sporadic chest activity. It wasn’t consistent and it never lasted more than a few seconds.
Later that week when I absentmindedly ran up a flight of stairs, I knew something was wrong. The imaginary twinge turned into real life chest pain.
I quietly, and nervously, I walked back down to the living room. “Mom…”
“Hi, sweetie!” She smiled up from her book.
“I felt something weird in my chest when I ran up the stairs.”
Her smile instantly dissolved. “Ok, we need to call Dr. Yaghoobzadeh right now,” she was already dialing his number on her cell. “You have to tell him what you felt,” she handed me the phone.
“Ok.” I paced around the room, anxious and scared.
“Hi, Dr. Y? It’s Cristina Beltran. I’m so sorry to bother, but I just went up some stairs and I think I felt chest pain…”