Last Thursday, for a few hours, I faced my own mortality.
It's always there for me, that sword of Damocles, hanging over my head, inching lower as I get older.
The fact is, when it comes to heart attacks and stroke, I'm swimming in an incredibly shallow gene pool, and the clock is ticking. I've spent most of my life not wondering if I'm going to have a heart attack, but when.
My parents are blessed with five siblings apiece. I watched heart attacks (some of them the dreaded "silent heart attack") take almost all of my mother's siblings (one died due to complications after a house fire) and finally, I watched vascular disease take my mother's life.
She was sixty-four. And by that time, she'd already had a heart attack in her forties, and a stroke in her fifties. When she passed, she'd outlived all of her siblings.
Her parents had died from heart attack and stroke, and my paternal grandparents were similar, with the addition of vascular disease as well.
My father's family hasn't fared much better. Three siblings gone. Heart attack. Stroke. Breast Cancer. Two of his siblings remain. One has had a stroke, one is fighting breast cancer, and my father himself had a massive heart attack in his forties, requiring bypass surgery and two sets of stents in the years since.
My eldest brother had a heart attack and bypass surgery at fifty.
So when I tell you that I sat at my desk at work with searing pain radiating out of the center of my chest that seemed to go on for an endless time, leaving me shaking and decidedly weak-feeling in the aftermath, you need to know exactly how I felt in that moment.
Oh, God. This is it. This is finally it.
Could I dial security in time? Will 911 get here quickly enough? Does anyone on my floor know CPR?
When I realized I was still breathing, and the pain was receding, I got up and got a glass of cold water. Maybe it was just indigestion. I'd been under a lot of stress lately, after all.
I drank my water, and I felt a little better.
But not great.
And now it was the end of the workday, and I had to make my forty-five minute commute home, wondering if I was going to drop dead on the highway. Or get worse and have to call an ambulance from my cellphone. Or maybe I was just being overly dramatic and it's only my stomach or something, even when it didn't feel like my stomach.
Still, I am on back roads for part of the drive, and if something came down, my kids would be wondering where the hell I was.
So now for the hard part: Do I call my very level-headed twelve year old daughter and risk frightening her badly?
Hi Honey, I think I might be having or may have just had a heart attack, and there's a chance I may have a problem driving home, so if you don't see me pull in at my usual time, call me. And if I don't answer, call 911.
I couldn't do it. I did call her, telling her simply that I wasn't feeling well and if I was late that's because I may have had to stop the car. I let her assume I was going to be throwing up, instead of possibly coding out. And then I let a good friend know the situation, promising I'd call her when I reached home safely, and that I would call my doctor first thing in the morning.
I made it home without incident, and despite waking once in the night and feeling like I was dying again, I made it through the night. The EKG at the doctor's office showed nothing outright alarming, but with my family history, the doctor wants a full cardio workup immediately.
In the meantime, she's of the opinion - barring any news from the cardiologist, of course - that I may have a hiatal hernia, and we're moving forward, testing that.
It's now five days later, and I'm still alive. Not feeling great, mind you, but still alive.
That was a close one. And once again, I realize that it shouldn't take a scare like this to get me serious about my health. It's time to face the music, get off my ass, and dance a little more, in any direction but the refrigerator.
I may not be able to dodge the sword, but if I'm lucky and I work at it, maybe it'll only be a flesh wound.