I SAVED MY LIFE...YOU SAVE YOURS
February is Women’s Heart Month. Over a half million women die every year from heart disease and most of them didn’t have to. I was almost one of them. Here’s my story:
“I’ll never make it,” I thought. “When did these stairs get so steep?! I’m gonna look like an idiot if I fall down in front of everybody...” It was a blisteringly hot July day, one of the hottest I can remember, and the humidity was off the charts. I was dragging myself up the subway stairs at the Lexington Avenue and 51st Street stop. I’m not kidding about the “dragging.” I was literally pulling myself up the railing, arm over arm and sort of grunting. Very attractive. Plus, I felt like fainting. “Nevermind,” I said out loud, "I bet everyone in NYC feels like fainting right now.” But I doubt if everyone in NYC had what I had: a cold, dark, hollow feeling in the center of my chest....and my arms felt really tired. “Probably from the pulling,” I said. I made it up the stairs and staggered to my office a few blocks away. I actually thought of stopping in the deli and asking them to call an ambulance but I didn’t want to bother anybody...
I plopped myself down at my desk and felt a little bit better. The “cold, dark, hollow feeling” faded away. “Glad that’s over,” I said (out loud, of course.) But was it? I’d had the same feeling a few times in the last couple of weeks but hadn’t thought much of it. And I’d had heart “palpitations” for a few years but whenever I’d mentioned it during my annual physicals, my doctor would say, “Don’t worry about it, Gail. Women get palpitations. And look at you, you’re healthy as a horse! Your blood pressure’s perfect, your chest X-ray’s perfect, your EKG’s perfect and your good cholesterol’s so high, I wish I could inject it into the bloodstreams of some of my other patients! (The “bad” cholesterol was another story...) Just keep doing what you’re doing.” So I did. But there I was...alone in my office. Well, not really alone, it turns out. I heard this voice: “Wait a minute, Gail, “ it said, "are you crazy? This isn’t good. Tired arms aren’t good. Who are you kidding? Something could be wrong...” “Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped back. “I’m healthy as a horse!” “Yeah, maybe, maybe not,” the voice said, “and what about the people who love you? You want to be here for them, don’t you?” Well, that did it. That was a true defining moment in my life. One I’ll never forget. I listened to my heart. “Hey,” I shouted out to my assistant, “didn’t somebody give us the name of some cardiologist?”
I called him - and saw him - the next day. Of course, my EKG, chest X-Ray, blood pressure were all perfect. But this doctor was different. He listened. “You sure look healthy,” he said, “but I don’t like the sound of this 'cold, dark, feeling’ you’ve got in your chest. We’re going to do an echo stress test on Monday.” “Okay, no problem,” I said and worked out extra hard over the weekend so I could ace it. But I didn’t. I flunked it...big time. (Later, when we did interviews on CBS and ABC he said the "hair stood up straight" on his head when he watched how my heart handled - or rather, mishandled - the stress.) A few minutes later in his office, he told me it looked like I had a major blockage in my left anterior descending artery (they call it the “widow maker..”) and maybe the one next to it. “We’ll go to the hospital and do an angiogram tomorrow. Maybe we’ll put in a stent...” “A stent??!!” I said, “Are you kidding? Dick Cheney has stents, not me! Hey, I was almost an Olympic athlete for God’s sake, I never smoked, I run around the reservoir in Central Park every day, eat right...(I was getting worked up) and anyway, I have to give a speech tomorrow, I....” "Somebody else will have to give it,” he said quietly. Well, the angiogram showed that indeed, my LAD and the one next to it were blocked by more than 80%. Bypass surgery, not stents, were in order.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on a gurney waiting to go into the O.R. saying every prayer I ever knew. I even sang my “power song” (under my breath) “I'm the Greatest Star” from Funny Girl. It made the woman on the gurney next to me laugh which was a good thing. It turned out I was really lucky. Because at least part of me was “healthy as a horse.” I was able to have “minimally invasive” robotic surgery so my recovery time was cut dramatically.
Two days later I went home (and climbing stairs...) Two days after that I was taking “mini” walks around the reservoir. Two days after that I was right back in my office, doing what I always did - but with energy and optimism - not a “hollow feeling” or “tired arms.” Here’s the bottom line: I saved my life...by listening to my heart.
So why don’t you save yours? Sound far-fetched? Maybe not. Here are some more statistics: Heart disease is the number one killer of women. Twice as many women die from heart disease than from all the cancers put together. More women die from heart disease than men. How could this be? Well, there are a number of reasons: Up until very recently, the vast majority of research has been done on men. And it turns out that women can have very different symptoms: just being “tired,” an "aching jaw,” feeling “dizzy” or “faint” or as one woman said, “I thought I had the flu...” (So far nobody has mentioned a “cold, dark hollow feeling...”) So we blow off the problem and wait for it to go away. Plus, many of us “don’t want to bother anybody,” or just “don’t have time” to check it out, or as a woman told me recently when I recommended she have a stress test, “I don’t want to know what it says...”
But what about the people who love us? If we love them back, if we want to “be here” for them, we can do something: We can learn about the symptoms (check out the American Heart Association’s website for a thorough list and information about the Go Red for Women campaign), we can listen to our own hearts, we can follow our instincts...and we can act. And we can encourage each other. Starting right now. This is Women’s Heart Month. Do it. Oh, and get a stress test, will you? Hey, maybe you’ll find out you’re healthy as a horse. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, right?
Here’s a short clip of my "heart story” on World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer...
Gail Blanke’s Lifedesigns©2014 All Rights Reserved
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