Four years ago today I experienced a heart attack.
Two days before I had sharp pain in my left biceps while I was at the gym that went away by the time I got home. Odd, I thought, and I added it to the list of questions I would ask my GP on Monday during my annual physical.
The pain returned during the physical and after an EKG my doctor announced she was sending me to the ER to be monitored.
A note about pain: Only my left biceps hurt. It was not at all the warning sign I expected for a heart attack. The pain was steady and something like the way you ache when you have the flu or when you’ve pulled a muscle, but not exactly. At its worse it was about a 6 on a 10-scale. I remember thinking afterwards, “Something that’s going to kill you should hurt a lot worse.” For reference, two years ago I was enduring a stomach virus. Lynda came into the room, looked down at me curled up in a fetal position with stomach cramps and asked, “Are you okay?” “Listen,” I told her, “I died of a heart attack and the pain wasn’t nearly this bad.”
Mary Frost was the ER nurse who led me to the small examination room. “Take off your shirt, lie on the table, and we’ll check you out,” she said cheerfully. She told me later that when she turned to draw the curtain I collapsed on her. “I thought you were being fresh!” she joked, but when she saw my face she knew that my heart had stopped. Mary called the code and a carefully orchestrated scramble began. For my part, it felt like I was taking a nap, compete with the most euphoric dream…..but that’s a subject for another time.
A note about Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA): SCA is the leading cause of death in the U.S. accounting for about 325,000 deaths per year (for comparison: Prostate Cancer=32,000, Breast Cancer=42,000, Automobile Accidents=43,000). 95% of SCA victims die before reaching the hospital. More facts here.
The ER staff worked diligently for over 5 minutes to restart my heart. I woke up staring through an oxygen mask at 9 faces hovering over me. I counted 6 IV bags dripping into my arms. “Tell us your name,” the doctor demanded. “Sammy Williams,” I told him, and I wondered if more difficult questions were coming. At that point Cathy Childress, a Northminster member and gifted ER nurse, pushed her head into my field of vision. “Sammy, is that you?” “Cathy!” I responded, excited to see someone I knew. “Do you know him?” the doctor asked. “….this is my pastor!” Cathy exclaimed.
My son Aaron had driven me to the ER, and I asked Cathy to retrieve him from the waiting area. When he came into the room, I smiled at him through the plastic mask and shrugged to say, “I’m sorry about all this.” He says he knew things were bad when he saw my shirt torn off of me and buttons scattered on the floor. Aaron has regularly entertained the family with his (exaggerated!!) version of events, focusing on things like the depth of his father’s denial (“On the way to the hospital Dad kept saying, ‘No problem, I’m fine!'”) He located his mother, who was giving an exam in the bowels of VCU, and lied to her mercifully until she was safely at the hospital.
Dr. Mihn Bui was the cardiologist on call at Henrico Doctors. He is one of the best–if not the best–interventionists in town. Within an hour he had inserted 5 stents into my circumflex artery and the next day when I asked about limitations, concerns, future problems, he matter-of-factly responded, “You’re fixed now.”
Some of the things I learned over the next days were that CCU is a prison (with kind, dedicated
guards nurses), that hospital patients need only the briefest of visits from a very few friends, and that the smallest things become signs of great love (the battery toy that Karen Linkous sent to entertain me was a curious reminder that life would indeed go on). I realized how blessed I was at 55 to serve a church whose leaders sent me this message: “Take as long as you need to get well. Return to work at any pace you choose. The important thing is that we get you back.”
Recovery was a slow process. I remember on my second day home walking outside for less than 100 yards and being totally exhausted from the effort. I did 12 weeks of cardiac rehab where I was coached and cared for by Becky, Brenda and Carmen. Becky told me my first day with them, “If you will trust us and do what we say, we will get you back to where you were physically.” She was a woman of her word. So far this year I have walked 605 miles. On a good day I can walk 4.25 miles in 56 minutes. That’s pretty good for a guy my age whose heart hasn’t stopped!
Today, as most days, I think of a prayer I have lifted up for others over the years, and today especially I offer it for me:
Merciful and gracious God: we give you thanks that you have created us in such a way that when something goes wrong with our bodies, we can be made well.