Who’s got two thumbs, no family history of heart disease, and a stent in her left anterior descending artery?
I turned 34 on January 8, 2016 – and I would have told you I was in the best shape of my life. I had a healthy BMI, good blood pressure, and excellent cholesterol. I successfully abandoned the bad lifestyle practices of my 20s, and developed a passion for health and wellness. I had even left my life as an attorney and was taking prerequisite classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for a graduate nutrition program. I was experiencing levels of physical fitness I’d never known before – exploring challenging high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes, strength training, yoga, you name it. I thought my body had never been in such excellent condition.
That was when I first started experiencing the angina. But I didn’t call it. No one called it that for 5 months.
Chest Pain – The Symptom that Saved My Life
The chest pain occurred only during exercise. Early on, it was prompted by intense workouts, but
after a while it would occur during lower intensity exertion, like yoga, and later it could be brought on by a fast-paced walk. As the pain pervaded each fitness task, that task fell away from my routine, leaving time for my science classes at UIC, which I was finding more challenging by the day. I focused on my school work.
My friends in the medical profession were quasi-dismissive. A nurse friend of mine insisted I was having panic attacks. She even rolled her eyes when I told her the tightness was around my heart. “I’m telling you right now, Liz, it’s not your heart.” Others responded similarly, suggesting I see a doctor at my convenience to have my breathing examined. I went to a local urgent care center on a Saturday morning (seeking a quick, easy diagnosis). The doctor said I just had exercise-induced asthma and gave me an inhaler. The inhaler didn’t help.
In late April, a week before my last final, I was crossing a street with my friend and we ran to beat the changing light – a few seconds later I told her I had to stop walking because of the chest pain. She looked at me with a very concerned face and said, “you need to go see your doctor about that, like now.” I’d become so passively resigned to it, maybe I needed to hear that. Maybe I just missed exercise. Either way, on May 4th, the day after my last final, I finally saw my primary care doctor.
The Doctor Who Took Me Seriously
My doctor, to whom I had failed to bring this problem for five months, sat across from me and said, “Are you sure you don’t have any heart disease in your family?” After I said no, she frowned and said she was going to order me a stress test. I knew what that was because I watched House: they put you on a treadmill and monitor your heart. I will never forget the last thing she said to me: “Call and schedule it today and get it done as soon as possible. We need to get this figured out. Heart Disease is the number one killer of women.”
As I walked out, I was handed a prescription: Stress echo. Angina.
I googled angina. The American Heart Association explains: “Angina is chest pain or discomfort caused when your heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. It may feel like pressure or squeezing in your chest… It is a symptom of an underlying heart problem, usually coronary heart disease (CHD).”
The Stress Test
My stress test was not supervised by a cardiologist because I was considered low risk. The techs poked me, prodded me, made me run on an inclined treadmill with no bra (no one warns you about that part!). They got my heart rate up to over 90% of my target heart rate and I didn’t get the chest pain. In the end they said, “We’re not authorized to say you’re fine, but we can tell you we would go get the cardiologist if we saw a problem, and we’re not getting the cardiologist.”
I left the hospital disheartened – I had become sure they’d find something. I began to wonder if this was in my head, perhaps a psychosomatic response to a subconscious hatred of exercise.
But an hour later, my doctor called. “Elizabeth, your test was positive. Your something something something is something something something.” (It took me more time than it should have to remember that “positive” meant “bad”.) “I put in a call to a cardiologist friend of mine. Dr. Blah Blah is coming in early tomorrow to meet with you. You need to be at blah blah hospital in room blah blah at 7:30 am tomorrow. Are you writing this down?” (Oh shit, I’ll get paper.) “Elizabeth, write this down. And they will probably do an angiogram, do you know what that is?” (No.) “They will put a catheter in you and shoot dye to look into your heart. Don’t eat or drink water after midnight tonight. Do you understand this?” (Yes.) “Bring someone with you to the hospital, ok?” (OK.)
Angiogram and Angioplasty
The next 48 hours were a blur. The cardiologist took a detailed history, examined me, and told me that my stress test results were “pretty positive”, and that I was either going to get an angiogram or be admitted into the hospital.
Luckily, they were able to get me in for the angiogram.
The angiogram showed that my left descending anterior (“widow maker”) artery was approximately 95-98% clogged. They were able to put in a stent. I was on a lot of sedatives when they did this, and they even gave me some delightful painkillers for the discomfort in my wrist.
At Present – Healthy?
I’m still healing and trying to understand what this means for me. This blog is my attempt to understand this disease and share my experience with others.