I had a heart attack on October 25, 2020, which coincidentally, was my 23rd wedding anniversary. No, I don’t think the two are related.
Since the prior July, I had been having stomach problems. I would be nauseated at least once a week and it was uncomfortable to eat. While I had stomach problems on and off for years, doctors could never find a reason. Since I suffer from panic attacks and anxiety generally, that was always the final answer for my discomfort. I eventually believed this too since it was easier to have a reason for my bad gut than not.
About four days before my heart attack, I started having severe bloating and nausea. At this point I was downing Pepto Bismol chewables like candy trying to keep the symptoms at bay. Each day it got a little worse. Finally, on that Sunday, my chest and shoulder started hurting. It was so gradual that it never occurred to me that I could be having a heart attack. Instead, I made a mental note that I should go to the doctor on Monday and get it checked out.
The rest of the day I did stuff to distract myself from the pain. It didn’t work. As time passed, I started to have this weird feeling of impending doom, just like the Heart Association says you will. What they don’t tell you is that this sense of impending doom slowly becomes ‘I think I’m dying’ over time. My denial, however, kept me from acting on those thoughts.
Starting that afternoon, my cat, Jet, began following me around the house. She would sit and stare at me. It was unnerving. All the while, the pain is becoming more intense, but in my stomach and back. I was holding my chest, but it didn’t hurt and I can’t tell you why I held it.
In the early evening, Jet’s concern escalated. She started meowing, gradually getting louder until she was non-stop yelling at me. I was actively arguing with…a cat. Telling her to stop. Putting her in other rooms, which was stupid because she would simply find me again. Nothing would shut her up.
At about 7:30 pm, the epiphany came. It felt like someone had wired my teeth to a wall outlet. It started in my fillings but over the course of a few minutes, the roots of nearly all my teeth were on fire. It was unbearable. The cat is now screeching at me. I threw in the towel. I went out to the balcony where Lydia is on the phone with her brother. “I need to go to the hospital,” was all I said. Within a few minutes, Lydia was off the phone, dressed and ready to go.
To get to the elevator from our apartment, you have to walk down a long gallery that is open to the floor below. It’s about 60 feet. As I was walking, I experienced that effect you see in horror movies, where the hallway telescopes and gets longer as you walk down it. I know that it took only a few moments to walk to the elevator, but I felt like I was never going to get there.
Once in the underground garage, walking to the car, the special effects continued. The garage is sloped down from the elevator lobby, so It’s a slight downward grade to get to our car. Not tonight. In my mind, it was an upslope and a steep one at that. I’m winded by the time I get into the passenger seat. Now everything hurt, my chest and back; my mouth is on fire. The one thing that never happened was pressure in center of my chest. It was more like stabbing pain that migrated around as I breathed or changed position.
We headed for Huntington Hospital which is about a mile from our home. We’d never been there, so instead of turning on Congress Street, which would have taken us directly to the ER entrance, we turned on California. There was a sign directing us to the ER on California. Because Huntington is a Level 1 trauma center, and it’s near the Rose Bowl, it has a couple of entrances to the ER, one being off a mass casualty area. I was fully panicked at this point, and had Lydia stop so I could cross the darkened, roped off triage area and walk up to the frosted doors. I could see people through them. I hammered on the doors.
“Hey, I’m in trouble, let me in”
“Wrong entrance,” whomever was there was annoyed.
“I’m having a heart attack!”
“It’s the next door up! I can’t let you in here.”
Just then I could hear Lydia yelling to me to get in the car because she saw the entrance. I returned to the car. In an instant she pulled up in front of the entrance. I got out and went to the door where I was greeted by a male nurse.
“You need a mask to come in,” This was the height of the post summer COVID spike, and they weren’t playing around. Poor Lydia would not even be allowed into the hospital at all. She waited in a parking structure for word on my progress.
“I’m having a heart attack!” By this time, I honestly felt like I was dying. Except for what was in my field of vision directly in front of me, everything else was black. I had the impression that all the lights were off in the ER. Why would they keep the waiting room dark? I wondered. Later, Lydia would say it was bright as a photoshoot in the lobby.
They immediately let me in and did three things: tore off my hoodie and tee shirt, attached me to an EKG machine, and rammed a COVID test stick up my nose. It seemed like a second later, the handed me a paper cup with four baby aspirin in it.
“Chew those and swallow them, quickly please,” the attending physician appeared out of thin air before me, looking at the EKG, “You’re having a heart attack; 30 to 50% of your heart is involved and you’re experiencing cardiac death.” I am bodily picked up from behind and put into a wheelchair. They take me to a desk where I hand my wallet to woman who fishes out my ID and insurance card. I barely notice the nurse wheel up an IV pole and start a line in my left arm. Things are starting to get far away.
A second later a doctor and a nurse are running down the hall with me in the wheelchair along with the IV pole. The sound of the tires on the floor, the lines banging against the pole seem loud. Everybody’s calm; we’re all talking in fact. They keep asking me questions to keep me oriented and are constantly checking on my pain level. I suspect I’ve got some pain drugs on board because I start to get floaty. We get to the elevator, where they unceremoniously remove the rest of my clothing and start a second IV.
If I go to sleep, is it the drugs or my heart getting worse? I begin to realize that it’s going to be a problem if I nod off, so now I’m fighting to stay in the conversation with them.
On the next level down, it’s a short trip to the cardiac catherization lab. We wheel past rooms that are blocked off with large plastic sheets. Huntington is building out space to accommodate the next COVID wave. In fact, the ICU I will recover in, was the Neo-Natal ICU, converted to handle regular ICU patients. The hospital’s large regular ICU was nearly full.
They wheel me into a room that looks like it’s on a spaceship. It has lots of cool exposed metal girders, metal clad walls and bright lighting. All the finishes were white, black and grey. There was the mobile x-ray gantry and the procedure table along with a cluster of four huge video monitors. Everything was clean and high tech. It all looked like a movie set.
Standing beside the equipment, there are five people, all scrubbed in. I meet my cardiologist for the first time. “Hi, I’m Doctor Chris,” he says breezily with a big smile on his face, ”We’re going to get to know each other very well.”
I’m asked if I can get myself on to the table, which I do. A nurse with a clipboard comes up, “Let me explain what…” I stop him with a wave of my hand. At this point, I am so anxious I know I won’t hear a word anyone is saying.
“My mom did surgical scrub. I know time is short. Show me where to sign.” He spins around the clipboard and points to the appropriate spots. As I hand him back the pen, I say, “Do a good job.” Even though he has on a surgical mask, I can tell he’s smiling.
“We’re good,” he calls over to the cardiologist. The table moves me into the position as the lights dim. Soon all I can see is the cardiologist, illuminated by the glow of the screens and few pinpoint spotlights pointing down at what I assume was my body. The rest of the lab was dark, like we were on stage.
“Mr. Mehit, we are going to go artery by artery to find the blockage and what kind of damage you’ve got. Then we’ll decide if we use a balloon to clear it, put in a stent, or if you’re going to need a bypass.” A pause. “You are in distress, so I can’t really wait until you’re completely numb. It may hurt when I punch down,” Dr. Chris said. Before I can tell him I’m okay, he continues, “There, we’re in.” I never felt him punch a hole down to my femoral artery. There was so much adrenaline going. It simply felt like pressure.
After a pause he added, “Would you like to watch?”
I want to say that at this point, the speed and competence displayed had reduced my fear greatly. But I wasn’t up to watch people probe around my heart with metal wires, so I declined. I closed my eyes and started doing the breathing exercises I use to lessen my panic attacks. To my surprise, they work. In a few moments, I was calm and present.
Out of nowhere, a nurse with the most beautiful blue eyes seemed to fill my entire field of vision. “How’s your pain? What’s the number?”
“A little better, maybe a seven.”
She squeezed my hand. “It’s going to get busy,” she smiled, “but you’re going to do fine.” And just like that, I was completely relaxed. I, a panic attack ridden neurotic, was totally calm. In my mind, the doctor was on a platform about three feet above me, working at cluster of four enormous screens. After a minute or two he starts relaying my status.
“Okay, this artery is 20% blocked. That’s good…good for your age.” After another moment, he announces, “This one is 40% blocked. About average for your age and not today’s problem.” There’s a second doctor or technician with him. Time goes by. They start conversing at something closer to a whisper.
“That’s fucked,” said the tech. At that point I assume they found the 99% block of my left anterior descending artery at a location that would cut off blood to half of my heart if it completely closed. The common term for this blockage is the ‘widow maker’. I was minutes to hours from cardiac arrest, if untreated.
“Concur” said my cardiologist, “Well, wait. See that. I can get through that.” Later I would realize that ‘I can get through that’ was the difference between a stent and a bypass operation, which would be a much more painful, longer, recovery.
“If you break off any plaque, he’ll stroke” Dissention in the ranks. I was getting nervous again.
Very long pause. Dr. Chris turns his head in the direction of the medicine technician who is standing just over my left shoulder. “Prep tPA, please.”
About three years ago, we did a business plan for a company that wanted to put mobile MRI machines and tPA, Tissue Plasminogen Activator, a drug that can dissolve the clots that cause ischemic strokes, in ambulances. This would increase the odds of surviving a stroke tremendously as treatment could be given in the field within minutes of onset. It boosted my confidence that he called for the drug. If I did have a stroke, the odds of passing through it undamaged were very good. I knew I was in good hands.
While I was ruminating about my good luck, I was about to find out exactly how good my luck really was. It became really quiet. Everyone is watching the screens except me. My eyes are closed. I breathe one long slow breath after another. Forever passes.
“See…I told you,” Dr. Chris says.
“I’ll be damned,” the tech offered. It seemed like everyone started breathing again.
Above me, I see Dr. Chris’ disembodied head. “You were 99% occluded, you lucky son-of-a-bitch.” He and the tech start discussing stent sizes and what pressures they’re going to use to inflate it. The level of activity in the lab accelerates and with my eyes closed, I can sense things happening all around me. All of this seems to take a really long time, given the pace of the proceeding events.
After a while, the medicine tech says, “Are we going to save this guy?”
“No, he’s fine,” says Dr. Chris.
A wave of panic washed over me. “Save me!” I said assertively.
“Seriously, you’re fine,” Dr. Chris reassures me. It wasn’t until days later that I understood the medical tech was asking if they were going to need the tPA. Again, it got really quiet for an extended period. No one was speaking, just the sounds of cooling fans and IV pumps.
“It’s really quiet up there,” I said.
“I need you to be quiet. And still,” Dr. Chris said.
After a beat, the nurse with the beautiful blue eyes appeared before me and said, “In a moment, you’re going to feel better than you have in years.”
And as the last syllable was spoken, I was instantly better. It was like fog lifting. The pain vanished, replaced with a feeling of being alive that was equivalent to having nine orgasms at once. I felt connected with everyone in the lab, no, everyone in the universe and for a brief moment I understood how interconnected and interdependent we all are. I was overflowing with love and gratitude. I WAS FUCKING ALIVE!
Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I croaked, “Thank you so much.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Dr. Chris said, “I’m putting in contrast dye to see if the stent is in the right place and you’re not going to like it.” Instantly, fire shot through every blood vessel. I could feel the heat of the contrast dye shipping around my body with every heartbeat. Each heartbeat was big and pounding like my heart was going to explode. After about fifteen seconds, the dye felt like it collected in my asshole, turning it into a white hot, dying star. Ten seconds later, it was over.
I was left shivering like I had been pulled from an arctic sea.
“Adrenaline,” the blue eyed nurse offered.
They put me in a bed and covered me in piles of warm blankets to wheel me off to the ICU. I was telling everyone and anyone who would listen that I loved them. I’m sure I looked and sounded like a total maniac.
Looking back a year later, I have to tell you that I am somewhat of an unreliable reporter. I’m stunned by the hallucinations. I thought Dr. Chris was on a platform, which would have been impossible since he was manipulating guide wires at my groin. I thought I walked uphill to my car. The forever journey to the elevator. The darkened ER waiting room. It makes me question what I did, and did not, experience.
Even though I had these visions, the primary story is true. It changed my life and made me resolve to slow down and be more present in each moment. This moment is the only thing we ever have in life. These moments are consumed every second; we can never possess them.
But they are what make up a life. They are fragile, precious, and sacred. My alive day left me full of nothing but gratitude for all the moments that are my life.