Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection

The Day My World Stopped

February 4, 2014

This is my very first attempt in getting this story out of my head and someplace where I can finally share it with those who have asked. Please bear with me… this is pretty scary stuff.

I am 45 years old, and have two beautiful children whom I love more than life itself. After 20 years of marriage, I found myself divorced and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. With my kids encouraging me, I decided to return to school to finish a degree I’d started and then gave up when I became a mom. Spring 2013 was my first semester back, and I will admit that working full time and trying to go to college full time after a 25 year break wasn’t easy. But I received good grades and for the first time in my life was really proud of myself.

Two weeks after the semester ended, on May 20th of this year, I was driving home from work and I suddenly developed a tremendous pain in my jaw, and by the time I arrived home about 10 minutes later, the pain had spread from my jaw into the top of my chest, running down my left arm. I felt exhausted, a little nauseated, and completely “out of it.” My daughter greeted me and immediately asked what was wrong. I was feeling really “disconnected” and just laid down on the couch – something I never did. My mom was on her way over to my house to help me with something, so when she arrived I asked her to take me to the ER because I knew something was really wrong.

When we got there, the room was packed, but after I said I had pain in my jaw and my arm, they rushed me past everyone that was waiting and next thing I knew I was flat on my back in a room with 6 people taking my clothes off and hooking me up to a multitude of machines and wires… After hours of tests the doctor told me that they didn’t think I’d had a heart attack, but wanted me to see a cardiologist the following day. I went home, but from that point on, every time I walked more than about 20 feet I had the weird pain in my jaw again.

I met with my new doctor the next day, and he was amazing. He is in his 70’s, very kind, and one of the most intelligent people I think I’ve ever met. After my appointment was over, he asked me if I believe in God and I said yes, and he asked if I’d mind if he added me to his prayer list when he got home that night…sort of blew my mind. He had me do a treadmill test, and saw some irregularities, and of course the jaw/chest pain again. So the following day, I did a nuclear dye stress test at the hospital, with the same results. Again, he didn’t like what he saw, so he scheduled me for an angiogram the following day. My father had had many angiograms and I knew what they were, so I was somewhat aware of what to expect.

Thursday morning I drove to the hospital at 7am for my test. I was taken to a room and given IV etc, and asked to wait. Thankfully I’d brought my book and I had a room with lots of windows, so I spent a lot of time distracting myself by reading or watching the sky. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous. I knew something was wrong, but I don’t recall feeling afraid. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had two c-sections, a hysterectomy, an appendectomy, and a couple other things. I’ve never had any reason to fear hospitals or doctors. My doctor was there and had checked in on my several times during the day. He was great – he promised me he’d do his very best to find out what was wrong, and told me he’d been consulting with several other cardiologists and heart surgeons across the country and they were all very concerned and had asked to be kept informed of what was happening. He admitted this was something he hadn’t seen before, and told me I had a lot of guardian angels on board. I was optimistic and frankly enjoyed the quiet time to catch up on my reading.

After many delays, they were finally ready for me at 6:30pm that evening. By that time, my mom and my daughter had arrived and were there to wish me good luck. I remember being wheeled into the room, and seeing all the monitors and equipment. My doctor was there and talking to me, and the anesthesiologist was right beside me. That was the last thing I remember before everything went wrong.

Then all of a sudden I felt as though my body was being flooded with heat… I felt like I was stuck under an electric blanket that was way too hot. Then I felt like someone was crushing me. I remember I was hot, too hot… the jaw pain had come back worse than ever, and I started to panic. I remember trying to move and realizing my arms and legs were strapped to the table and I couldn’t move… then I really got scared. I remember all sorts of alarms going off and people shouting things I didn’t understand and someone saying my name very loudly… I kept trying to say “please help me” and it seemed like nobody could hear me. I remember trying to blink the tears from my eyes. I must have tried to sit up because someone grabbed my arm and my shoulders and got right in my face and shouted “YOU NEED TO LIE STILL!” and slammed me back down onto the table. The last thing I remember heat, pain, and fear I can’t even adequately describe. I can’t even begin to tell you how frightened I was. I have never known fear like that and I pray I never will again.

When I woke up very heavily drugged the next day, I slowly started to realize something major had happened. My throat ached – I was later told it was because of a breathing tube, I had two big tubes sticking out of my chest, I had machines hooked up to my legs, I had IVs in both arms and my neck, and as I started to try to move, I slowly realized my chest and my stomach were completely numb…as well as my left leg. I had stitches in my left leg in two places. I had bruises everywhere on my legs and arms… Confusion and then fear began to creep in through the haze. I remember feeling frustrated because I couldn’t speak. I had family members and friends there and I was frustrated because I couldn’t see them very well and couldn’t form words… my daughter looked so frightened and from that point on, that’s all I could think about – once again I had caused her pain and fear… I remember trying to apologize for scaring everyone but my voice wouldn’t work. My mom and my daughter told me I had had a heart attack – possibly two – and they did emergency bypass surgery on two arteries. They’d had to crack my sternum in half and shove all my ribs and muscles and organs out of the way to get to my heart… I had veins taken from my left leg and grafted onto the damaged arteries to make new ones…they put my breastbone back together with glue and wrapped it in wire from top to bottom so it would heal properly… it sounded like a cross between a science fiction story and the worst possible nightmare. I remember struggling through the haze of drugs trying to make sense of what they were saying. Apparently they’d found a tear in my left anterior descending artery, which was restricting blood flow and causing the symptoms I’d experienced. No idea how or when it happened – I could have been born with it, and the tremendous amount of emotional stress over the past couple of years certainly didn’t help. So during the angiogram the guide wire caught the tear when it entered the artery. It shredded all the way up, and all the blood flow caused a second artery to blow apart. I suffered a massive heart attack and everything stopped.

I don’t know how long I was gone, but it was a long time because just a few weeks ago my doctor finally told me that they did not expect me to live. Once I was revived they were afraid there would be a lot of damage to my heart.  My daughter recently told me that the reason so much time went by was because it took a long time to assemble the surgical team and get a couple of specific heart surgeons there… it was the middle of the night… she told me how they’d explained to her that I was technically dead and a machine was breathing for me and keeping me alive. My brain was the only thing functioning on its own. She explained to me that they’d had to let my body cool down enough to work on my heart, which took a long time. They’d actually brought her and my mom in to see me before they started the surgery because they really didn’t think I’d make it. My mom told me they walked into the room and all the doctors and nurses were lined up around me and that she’d never felt so much respect and urgency and fear at the same time in a room. They weren’t allowed to touch me – just kiss my forehead. It brings me to tears to think about this – I can’t even imagine how awful that must have been. As a mother and as a daughter, I know it must have been horrible. With everything my daughter has seen over the past few years, I struggle with tremendous feelings of guilt and regret. This is something I think about every day.

I was in the hospital for a week, and I am so grateful for all the nurses who took such good care of me. I was the youngest patient in the CICU by probably 20 years, which was an odd experience. I had lots of family and friends come to see me, which was a blessing, but I was still very much afraid. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, terrified because I was all alone, and afraid I’d die that way. I’d lie there thinking, I am all alone. I am not married anymore, there is nobody to take care of me…it’s just me and God. But I was so wrong.
When I came home, I was confined to my upstairs bedroom for weeks. I was basically an invalid – the person who takes care of everyone had become helpless. It was an odd and humbling time for me. My mom stayed with us for the first few days, then my daughter was my primary caretaker. She is by far the most mature 20-year old I’ve ever known. She stepped up to the plate and did everything for me – stayed on top of my medication schedule, convinced me I needed to eat when I didn’t want to, helped me shower and take care of myself, and took total control of our household… paid bills, did the grocery shopping, etc. There is no way I could have made it without her. I am so very proud of her.

I was deathly afraid of the stairs, I tried to walk a little outside but it was strange because every time I moved I could feel my broken sternum shifting around, and all my incisions felt like they’d rip open.. it was obviously a mind over matter thing. I was healing just fine, but I’d never had a broken bone so I had no idea what it felt like…the doctors assured me the swelling would disappear in a few months, and it did. I’m told that sneezing is gonna hurt for a while, so I’m trying really hard to prevent getting sick. All in all, I feel pretty good. Last week my doctor took me off one medication because he believes it was the source of some intense muscle and joint pain I was feeling. When I came home from the hospital, I was taking 12 new things – now I am down to a medicationl to keep my heart rhythm steady, and another medication, which is a precautionary blood thinner. Everything is precautionary now – I remember telling my cardiologist that I was confused and sometimes a little angry, because even though my father and maternal grandfather died from heart disease, I have always had low blood pressure, my cholesterol always tests in a healthy range, and I’ve lost about 40 pounds over the past couple years.. he said those things are irrelevant – he believes my heart problem was a genetic defect, and not something that could have ever been prevented. And though I consider myself to be really strong and a lot tougher now, nobody is completely immune to emotional stress. I surround myself with healthy, positive, happy people now. I no longer worry about what others think of me, or stress about whether or not someone likes me – I don’t have time for those things anymore because I’m too busy being grateful for everything and loving the people who matter most. And yes, I still eat Lucky Charms for breakfast sometimes.

Thank you for caring about me enough to read this.