Most of us go through our daily lives with little thought to our mortality. It’s just not something we think about often and that’s probably a good thing. No need to stress about something like that. I was going to write “nothing you can do about it” as well but that actually isn’t true. At least when it comes to heart health. There are plenty of things we can do for ourselves to greatly decrease the chances of having a heart attack. Unfortunately, I did very few of those things.
So what does it feel like to have a heart attack and what is the experience like?
I was working on our RV installing some new batteries and had been most of the afternoon. I was literally one ground wire away from finishing the job when my chest started to burn and hurt. I laid down on the floor of the RV for a moment but it didn’t help. I got up and went and laid down on our bed for a few minutes moving around trying to find a position that helped relieve the pain. Again, nothing helped. By this time the pain was shooting across my entire chest region and I was sweating profusely. It also felt like a weight was on my chest. Then the numbness and arm pain kicked in and this is when I started realizing that I’m very likely having a heart attack. I got up from our bed and sat down on our loveseat and told Misty something wasn’t right. The panic of just how far we are from any hospitals kicked in at this point too. This was always one of my biggest fears while being on the road. A major emergency with help hours away. But you take your chances. Misty Googled ER’s and found the closest one to be almost an hour and a half away. She asked me if I thought we needed to go and I said yes. So we head out towards Bozeman, MT.
It is a 25 minute drive to the nearest city of West Yellowstone, MT. On the way the pain increased as did my panic. So I ask Misty to call 911 and see if we have faster options of getting me some help. Unfortunately we were in a slightly dead cell zone so she kept losing the call with 911. She did manage a “yes we would like an ambulance to meet us in West Yellowstone” before losing reception for awhile. As soon as signals returned she called back. By this time we were in West Yellowstone so 911 said to just pull over and tell them where we were. It wasn’t two minutes later and a police officer showed up quickly followed by the ambulance.
The EMT asked if I have ever had anxiety issues and things like that and I remember thinking that I understood why she was asking. She thought I might be having a panic attack. Legit reasoning considering my age I suppose. I explained I had not and told her what had happened. She hooks me up to an EKG and immediately tells the ambulance driver that “we need to drive”. Obviously hearing that sets the panic in further and I look up at them and ask what’s going on. One EMT simply states that I’m having a “heart issue” and they are taking me to a helicopter to fly me to the nearest trauma center. The EMT’s are showing each other my EKG printout and I’m closely watching their expressions. I’m a pretty good people reader and I knew that it wasn’t good based on what I was seeing. I manage to look out the door of the ambulance and see Misty outside talking to the officer with tears running down her face and it hits me like a ton of bricks. I could be dying right here, right now and I won’t see her again. Or my daughter. Or my friends. Or my family. Shit, I have unsaid things to say and plenty of things left to do in this life! I can’t die right now!
Meanwhile the EMT’s are moving quickly. I get a shot of nitro under my tongue. He tells me it might give me a killer headache (it didn’t). I get some morphine for the chest pain and an IV. They are telling me to stay calm and that speed is of the essence which is why they have kicked into full gear. They are trying to save as much of my heart muscle as they can at this point. I didn’t like the way that sounded. Nope, not one bit! On the way to the helicopter I get another dose of nitro under my tongue and they are explaining to me what is going on. I’m being flown to Idaho Falls which is a 40 minute ride by air and it’s one of the best heart centers in the region. They are going to fix me up and I’ll be just fine. I was NOT feeling just fine and wasn’t very confident at this point of my situation. I was getting dizzy and blurry headed from the lack of blood pressure. I felt like I was going to pass out a few times and of course I just knew if I did that was it. They get me loaded onto the helicopter within minutes. They asked if I’ve ever been in one before and I tell them no. I mutter under my breath “this isn’t exactly the way I wanted the first ride to be either” trying to muster a smile. They let Misty come over and give me a kiss. She grabs my hand and we give each other the muted I love you. I’m just trying not to cry. I couldn’t shake the thoughts that this might be the last time I see her. They get me all strapped in and away we go.
I’m strapped into the helicopter in a position to where I can see out of the front of the windshield. Instead of enjoying the view, however, I kept my eyes closed most of the flight. Not for fear of the height or anything like, no, I was repeating to myself that “this is not my day to die”. I was focused on my wife and daughter. I WAS going to see them again! A few times, however, something would happen and I’d get a little fuzzy and the panic would set in again. I told myself I just need to control my breathing and let the EMT’s know if anything gets worse. The 40 minute ride seemed to take forever yet looking back now it seems all a blur.
The helicopter is met by a landing crew who whisk me off to the ER to start their assortment of tests on me. The nurses and doctors are busy doing their thing and I’m trying my hardest to relax. My way of doing that is generally by joking around and messing with those around me. I was only in the ER for around 20 minutes. They were waiting for the cardiologist to arrive so they could get me up to the Cath Lab. They said once I got up there that’s when they would be able to relieve my pain and get things sorted out. It couldn’t come fast enough!
The 20 minutes seem to go fairly slowly but eventually I’m being taken to the Cath Lab where I meet the team that will be performing the procedure. I learn that it isn’t surgery but rather a procedure which will help increase my recovery time. They will be inserting a Cath into my right wrist via an artery and following it into my heart. They have this huge TV with several windows on it where they can see what they are doing. I can see my heart as it appears on an X-Ray. They inject me with a dye so that my arteries show up better on the screen and you can actually see where the blood is being stopped at this point. It would have been more fascinating to me except for the pain. The pain being generated by the heart attack was bad enough, but when the Cath was in my heart the pain was actually more severe. At first they would tell me “that’s us” and sure enough the pain would increase. A few times it became unbearable so they gave me some pain meds which did help a bit. I believe this went on for an hour or so but to be honest, I’m not clear on the timeline. All I do know is that once the stent was in place and they were out of my heart, the pain was much, much better. Not gone, but better. When I say it felt like a weight was lifted from my chest, I really mean it. That’s exactly how it felt. The burning and pain was considerably less and I could breathe better. For the first time in hours I felt like I might actually be OK.
At this point Misty had driven the long two hour drive from West Yellowstone to Idaho Falls. They brought her into the procedure room with me so that she could hear what had been done. They explain that they had to place a stent in my right coronary artery which had become completely blocked by a blood clot. I’m still not 100% clear on this part, but I believe the thought was that I had a plaque buildup which caused blood to slow greatly. I was very active and stressing my heart which caused a burst or something which caused a clot. That clot got caught in the buildup. The stent was placed in the buildup area and inflated which caused the blood to start flowing freely again. They had recorded the procedure so we were actually watching these things happen as he was explaining. Pretty cool. There was another region they attempted to place a second stent but it didn’t take and they were concerned about some damage or something so they bailed on that attempt and left it be. It was in a artery branch or something. I was a little concerned that it seemed to me that there was still something in me not fixed but they did not seem concerned.
Now I’m carted off to ICU to recover and rest. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time in a hospital knows that rest is rarely achieved. Nurses come and go from your room every 15 minutes or so poking, prodding and recording. So very little to no sleep happened Wednesday night. I was very, very glad to be alive though.
Misty had gone back to our RV two hours away because the dogs needed to be attended to. I felt horrible because I knew she was going to be spending the night in the dark. I hadn’t finished my job of wiring the batteries back up so our RV had no power. So she had a cold, dark evening sleeping alone in our RV ahead of her. I felt horrible about it. She, on the other hand, felt horrible because she couldn’t be with me at the hospital. In our unusual situation, it just is what it is. She didn’t make it up to see on Thursday either due to the priority of getting electricity working again in the RV. Her task was to get ahold of an electrician who could come out that day to finish the wiring job. Luckily she found someone willing to leave a job early to come take a look. He was super nice but showed up much, much later in the afternoon than he had indicated he would. Still, he showed up and finished the job. He was there for two hours though so it cost us $240 for him to install one ground wire, fix two connections that I had done a shade tree mechanic job on (I had ran out of wire lugs so had connected two wires bare to our battery cutoff switch which I would fix properly the following day) but everything did work. I was disappointed when I saw that he hadn’t tied up any of my wire runs or anything like that. He got it working and that was it. Still, Misty and the dogs had power again which is what mattered.
While Misty was sorting out our RV issue, I spent my Thursday starting my recovery. The hospital staff were amazing and I had fun joking around with them and telling them about our journey. I would have new nurses come into my room and the first thing many would say is “so, you’re a photographer and traveling the US, huh? Cool!”. Many would take a seat and have me tell our story. They all said what we were doing was amazing and of course the word “jealous” got thrown around a lot.
Having time to think about what had just happened to me made the decision to do our journey even that more appropriate. I had almost died the day before. There is no other way to put it. Tomorrow is NOT a guarantee and mine almost ended short. But I have had the best eight months of my life and would have had zero regrets about it. As a matter of fact, while on the helicopter ride to the hospital, while thinking I may just not make it, the thoughts of what we had done and seen almost made the thought of dying OK. I didn’t want to, but if I did I had checked a lot of things off my bucket list and would be OK with it. There was almost a peace that came over me while thinking along those lines. But the thought of not seeing my wife, daughter and friends and family again still over powered being OK with dying. I was NOT going to die!
The rest of the stay in the hospital was fairly uneventful. They closely monitored an enzyme that your heart produces after being traumatized. Mine was off the charts but they said it wasn’t uncommon. My blood pressure has also been pretty low since the event. Otherwise, however, I’m pretty good. They released me Friday afternoon less than 48 hours after my heart attack.
We of course have had to re-evaluate our journey for the time being. We will be heading back to Indiana to see family and friends and allow me to rest up. I also need to find a permanent cardiologist to do all of my follow-ups with. We will be back on the road soon enough though! Our journey is not done! Stay tuned!!