“You need to go to the ER. You’re not funny. This isn’t funny. Stop joking about it. You very likely just had a heart attack. Go. Now.”
Those were the words my sister, an operating room nurse about to join something called the “heart team”, uttered over the phone nearly 3 hours after I had to quit my long run and get a lift back to my car, and then had to have my husband come all the way out to the running store to pick me up.
Well. My heart skipped a beat. …
Lemme back up some…
A couple years ago I started having this thing where my heart would skip a beat, and the next beat would be this psychically hard-feeling beat, and then it would beat a little fast for, like, just a second. Sometimes I’d get a little light-headed…not often. It would happen almost constantly after I walked out of the administration office of my then-job, get in my car and start to pull away. After my mom died, it would happen randomly throughout the day. I saw my doctor twice about it specifically and was told, “Its common with stress”…and then, “It’s common with grief”. I was fine. Just keep moving on. After I was on a long leave from the job, the skipped beats became scarce. I maybe had two over the last seven months. My heart would trip on a run and I’d just keep moving through it and be fine.
And then, Saturday.
I had 12-14 miles on my training plan. My friend Jim had 18 on his. The training group I was coaching had 8 “long slow miles” on theirs. I rolled out of bed easily at 5:20AM and met Jim 15 minutes earlier than planned at the running store. We had an easy run along a beautiful bike path for about 40 minutes before heading back to meet the running group. My group had grown by about two members – one, another Pain By Numbers friend who was joining Char on her long run that morning, but doing these 8 miles with me. We chatted and ran the hill without issue. We were a little faster than our group pace was meant to be, and faster than I intended to run them all at, but we were still in our pacing range.
It was shaping up to be a pretty perfect run. Not quite too hot yet. In fact, I thought it felt really good out. I stayed on top of my hydration, carrying my own water, rather than depending only on the couple of water stops along the route with the training group. Things were going smoothly. I didn’t feel like I was exerting myself much at all.
At the half way water stop for the group, 8 miles for me, I stopped to let everyone have a quick drink of water. Feeling a bit hungry, I bummed a caffeinated cliff shot off Jim, and as I ripped it open and started downing it, my heart skipped and then sped up. Nothing I’m not used to. I had a throw away mental question of, “What am I stressed about today?”
“Try to get your pulse when it happens.” – That’s what my Dr. kept telling me to do. And I’d always dismiss it because the incident would clear up too fast for me to realize I should be counting beats and timing the count.
I didn’t have time for pulse taking at that moment. I had to get my group moving again. I had held them up enough already. We had a pace to keep. So, on the hopes that, as with every other time, I could just run through it and it would go away, I started the group running again.
“If you go down and require CPR, someone is going to have to get a picture.” Jim joked as we moved. “You can bet by the end of the day it’ll have all kinds of fun stuff photo-shopped in. I’m thinking of that possum we found.”
I laughed, barely paying attention to him….
Barely 100 yards up a short incline (It felt like an incline to me, if it wasn’t one) and I felt too weak to pick up my legs or keep my head up. I became very dizzy and disoriented. I called for the group to keep moving, I needed to regroup myself. The group went on, Jim stuck with me. My vision went fuzzy, my hearing gave out completely, and I was in a fog as I tried not to pass out. Jim mentioned another running group friend who had passed out on him in a workout and warned me that, “This cannot become a thing. I can’t have women passing our around me during workouts all the time”.
We walked it out. Jim convinced that this was just a blood sugar thing, because something similar had happened to him before. Dehydration? Sure. It could be that too. Why not? Anything. Let it be anything, but a heart attack.
The pain was unexpected and intense. It wasn’t sharp or shooting. Just like a tightening of the chest…and then the shoulders… and then both sides of the neck… and then my right jaw.
Nothing that matched up with the descriptors of a heart attack that we all learned at some point, which usually points out that the pain will all be on the left side (Mayo Clinic has a pretty good list though, which, reading it now… No wonder my sister the nurse freaked at me and I got triaged to the front of the line at the Urgent Care facility….). I struggled along, Jim very literally leading me along by holding onto my arm and keeping me from walking into things. Although it was difficult, I kept trying to describe what I was feeling to him…specifically because I didn’t want to end up a medical mystery like on that show HOUSE. While walking, Char’s training group caught up with us. She asked if we were okay and Jim and I answered, “no” in unison. Char cracked a joke about Jim taking care of me if anything did happen. She said that the look I gave her made her realize that we weren’t kidding around and something was seriously wrong. She’s run enough races and training runs with me too to know that if I’m walking, there’s already something going downhill. She stopped and when I told her what was happening she panicked a little and said she’d be back with her car. I was told I should drive to the Urgent Care. I responded that I didn’t think I could drive. The Husband was called.
Jim and I walked out about two miles. As we neared the second mile I felt completely better. No more tightness or aches around.
“Wanna start running a little?” I asked Jim. He gave me a hard stare.
“No.” He said
“Oh. Yeah. Because I should see a Doctor first.”
We joked a little about the street names, and Char came careening to a stop from the side street near us. I hopped into her car and apologized profusely to Jim and Char both for ruining their training runs. I know that what they were doing was more important to all three of us than the run, but I wanted them to know that I appreciated it. Char drove me back to the running store, telling me about a medical condition that involves inflammation around the heart and can cause what I was describing. She offered to drive me to the Urgent Care up the road. I told her I felt really good and that my man was coming for me.
Back at the running store I apologized to my training group for dropping. They were understanding and wanted to know if I was okay and what happened. When I described it to one person she got shocked and apologized to me for running on ahead. I told her it really wasn’t a big deal.
But I guess heart stuff is a “big deal”.
I was feeling really good and was able to drive home, my husband sticking near by in his car to keep an eye on me. We agreed that I would call the Drs office on Monday and get an appointment that week. Because, really, what would they find out now after the fact?
Then I had that conversation with my sister.
Did you know?
Heart attack symptoms for women are different from men. In fact. The symptoms that we hear the most about for most issues are because all the major medical studies over decades have focused on white men between the ages of 40-65. According to NPR.
Apparently. Everything I described marked me as having a heart attack.
“How badass am I?” I joked at my sister on the phone. “I basically walked off a heart attack. See? I’m so fit I’m unbeatable.”
That’s how I got “strongly corrected” by her for joking about the issue. My Husband walked past giving me a stern look.
“Don’t glare at me! I out-fitnessed a heart attack!” I yelled after him.
“You’re probably just over trained.” He commented as he passed through the room agian.
“GO TO THE URGENT CARE. I’ll drive you. Go now.” My sister voiced on the phone. “Are you feeling any pain now?” She asked.
“I feel workout sore. In the chest and neck and jaw… I feel like I’ve just had a hard workout.”
“That’s post-heart attack pain. Go to the ER.”
It was another hour before I gathered up my stuff and headed out. The thought that finally pushed me through was, “Shit. I could die in my sleep tonight.”
The Urgent Care nurse put my name to the top of the list. Everyone treated me like I was super-sick. I felt fine…if finally starting to be terrified about what would happen if I did just have a heart attack that morning. I’m young. I’m fit. I’m healthy. I routinely score the healthy numbers on physical examinations and blood tests. My resting heart rate is in the low 50s. The stats show that I shouldn’t have to worry about heart disease. So if I become a heart patient today, do I have to quit running? Do I have to quit other things? What do I do?
My blood pressure was really, really high for me. And, apparently, high for non-runners too. The nurse said that I was most likely going to be sent up to the ER and going to be admitted. I said, “I’m feeling pretty terrified today. Likely thinking that I almost died is whats keeping this number high today.” He shrugged me off and said I should expect to be sent anyway.
The doctor listened to my story, his face turning into this disapproving look that I’m pretty used to from my normal doctor, her office, some nurses, my sister, and occasionally my husband when I choose to run while sick with the flu. I respect how professionally he called me a dumbass.
Good news, everyone! Not a heart attack.
I am hardcore, just not that hardcore. Phew. I am okay with this.
Apparently, it’s concerning that I’m having the skipped beats, called arrhythmia, in the first place, though. And I’m supposed to see a cardiologist about this stuff. I’m trying to have a sense of humor about being a 32 year-old heart patient right now. … Does this qualify me as a heart patient? I’m actually not sure.
So. Here’s what the doctor said was happening while I was trying to run through that heart rate thing:
My heart couldn’t refill fast enough to keep up with the oxygen demand throughout my body. The pain? That’s from the heart pulling hard to recover. The dizziness and such? It’s like standing up too fast on high-intensity. The cure? I should’ve have gone with my gut feeling in the moment and told the group I would catch up with them, and then waited out the increased heart rate. Then I could have run without issue.
Oh. And he’s pretty sure I didn’t damage my heart with this stunt. But, uh, I should never ever do that again. Also? Try to grab a pulse next time. He recommends calling a squad and getting hooked up to a monitor. Sorry, Doc. The normal events don’t last long enough for that to be a realistic expectation. But, whatevs. I’ll try. As usual.
“I liked my theory coming in here better than your diagnosis.” I muttered at him as the Urgent Care Doctor typed out blood work orders.
“What was that?”
“Blood sugar drop and panic attack.”
He spun in his chair and looked at me hard. “Well. That’s wrong. That’s not what happened at all.”
“I know.” I sniffed. “But it feels more manageable and safe than what you’re talking about right now.”
I’m not gonna lie readers. When he said, “I don’t think you did any damage to your heart with this”, my life took a serious moment to realize that I’m probably in danger every time I run.
The big outcomes of his talk are these: It’s not life threatening. And, because I had to interrupt his diatribe about other medical stuff to ask the very important question (“Can I keep running?”), it is not running career ending. I just have to chill out if it happens during a run.
I’m also feeling bummed out. My family has heart disease and weight issues all over the place. I’m doing all this fitness and healthy eating to avoid this stuff. And yet, here I am, putting on weight and now I’m a heart patient. Why was I even bothering to wake up and run all these days? Why am I skipping cookies and cakes and shit like that at parties? Kale! Why?
In the end, I guess even if running isn’t going to defeat my genetics, the why just becomes that much stronger:
It’s because I enjoy it. I really like what I’m achieving with it. I find successes in running. I love the friendships and adventures therein.
And that’s why I’ll continue. Despite my heart physically not being “all that into it”… my spirit is “all-in”, and so am I.
I’ll see you on Wednesday running groups!
Thanks for the read! Cheers!
Don’t forget to check out my associated facebook page at She Runs This Town . I had a HUGE adventure with the running group this past week, and the photos are up over there.