I know it's been a while since I've said hi on here, but not because I haven't been thinking about you all a lot. It's just....well, keep reading. But I'm glad to be back, mama!
When I was 29 years old, I ran my first race. It was a 5k and, at the time, was the longest distance I’d run in my adult life. It was an accomplishment that I was proud of and one that propelled me to run several more 5ks, 10ks, half and full marathons over the next several years. At 37, I had my first daughter. At 39, I had my second daughter. By 40, I was in some of the best shape I’d been in my whole life, exercising 5 times a week, eating a (relatively) healthy diet, and feeling incredible. I got an annual physical and, with the exception of hereditary high blood pressure that had been managed for the past decade, I routinely got a clean bill of health. Cholesterol was in check, weight was in check. I barely drank, never smoked. Nailing it!
In the summer of 2019, I got really sick with atypical pneumonia. Twice. In six weeks. Like, the kind of sick that you remember in your bones because you’ve never felt that sick, like, ever. It knocked me on my ass and it took months for me to start to feel “normal” again. But by that Fall, I was back to my regular workouts and eating habits, though I could never quite get back up to where I was. Around this same time, I walked upstairs one morning with my kids to pick out outfits for school and, while sitting on the floor going through the umpteenth dress, I got such severe chest pain that I was doubled over with tears in my eyes and I thought I was having a heart attack. The girls, then 4 and 3, called out for Ian and, as he came upstairs, the pain subsided. My left arm had gone numb and tingly, but within 90 seconds or so, it was like it never happened. About an hour later, once we’d gotten the kids off to school (even though Ian thought maybe that didn’t seem like what we should be doing?) I called the consistent voice of reason, otherwise known as my mom, and she said, “Stop what you’re doing and go to the ER. It sounds like a heart attack.”
And so we did.
About 6 hours, multiple rounds of bloodwork, and multiple normal EKG’s later, I was sent home with a card from the cardiologist on call who heard a murmur and wanted to do a stress test. I’d never had a murmur before, could this be the culprit of my random chest pain? After many discussions with my insurance company that eventually led to me going to a different cardiologist who was in-network, I found myself in the waiting room to see my new doctor the day after Thanksgiving 2019. By this point – several weeks since the first ER visit – I’d had countless rounds of chest pains. Chest pain that would wake me from a sleep, be so painful I couldn’t breathe, and would then….disappear. Chest pain that, apparently, wasn’t a heart attack – the bloodwork and EKG’s would confirm this. Chest pain that would drop me to my knees when they’d happen as I was making breakfast, putting the kids to bed, or watching tv on the couch. Chest pain that felt like what I’d imagined a heart attack to feel like. Every. Single. Day.
There is something wrong.
And so this is the chest pain I described to the kind cardiologist who was confused to see a 41-year-old, otherwise healthy woman in his exam room. He said my symptoms were puzzling, since my EKG’s and bloodwork showed nothing. And by the way, as it turns out, puzzling someone with a medical degree? One of the things I’m best at in life!
So I got a chest x-ray; nothing. He gave me a stress test on the treadmill; passed with flying colors, obvi (brush shoulders). He suggested it might be my job – was I under too much stress? No, it didn’t feel like stress, but I promised him I’d try to be more mindful of my stress. Oh, also, it was suggested that maybe I take a vacation. Or meditate. And was I sure it wasn’t panic attacks? Yes, I was sure.
So he eventually sent me on my way to a rheumatologist, comforting Ian and I that it wasn’t my heart that was the issue. Could it be inflammation?
So I went to the rheumatologist. After multiple weeks and rounds of bloodwork, two exams, and an MRI, it was concluded that….it was inconclusive. But it was probably inflammation? It wasn’t my heart, after-all. And so he sent me on my way without a diagnosis, asking me to come back when my symptoms became more “regular” or “worse.” I wondered aloud to Ian repeatedly what more “regular” pain might feel like? Did I need to have more than three bouts of knee-buckling chest pain per day to warrant something more? I suppose the fact that I’d go weeks, sometimes months, without any eye-watering pain meant that it wasn’t regular enough. Maybe I was just getting soft? Out of shape? Maybe if I pushed myself harder, ran a little further, faster, ate even better…maybe then? Maybe then I wouldn’t feel like I was constantly struggling for normalcy? Maybe I wouldn’t always feel like my life was now just a life that included regular, seemingly chronic, scary pain? Maybe this was all worse in my head than it was in reality? Maybe I was just stressed.
I started to feel crazy. Which made me do crazy things like run faster, harder, longer through crushing chest pain. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Because there’s a day that I remember so clearly that it’s etched into my memory forever. The day my MRI came back clean and the nurse called to tell me the “good news.” The MRI, as I saw it, was my last hope. Hoping they’d find anything to indicate that there was something insidious happening. Something to finally indicate why I hadn’t felt like myself for months now. It’s such a clear day – remembering exactly where I was when I told Ian that I was hoping to be sick. Because I felt like I was going crazy.
I know. I know it’s a horrible thing to say out loud – to wish to be sick. But let’s take a moment to try and understand that this was after months of knowing in my bones that there was something wrong, doing everything right to get the answers, and being told it was just “stress.” I’ve never been a complainer and was known to let pain get pretty extreme before I cried ‘uncle!’ Which was an indicator to those who knew me well that this wasn’t a drill. Which made me feel even crazier – the one time I actually sound the alarm and the doctors think that maybe I just need to take it a little easier and all of this would go away? If I just meditate and take a day off, I’ll be able to go up a flight of stairs without doubling over in pain!
Anyway, I was desperate for answers and to find a solution as to why I was slowly starting to feel just a teeny bit worse, month-to-month. A little less energy here, a workout cut short there…I just wasn’t quite right and I was hoping they’d find something, anything to explain why, just a year ago, I was in the best shape of my life and now I couldn’t tell when I was about to drop to my knees in pain in the middle of a grocery store.
So when everyone with a medical degree concluded that I was fine? That’s when I felt hopeless. And helpless. And crazy. Because I knew I wasn’t crazy. I’d mention to Ian that I felt tired all the time, I didn’t feel good, and that I knew there was something wrong. I’d get tears in my eyes with the frustration over nobody being able to tell me what it was but knowing that it was something. And he’d look at me, helpless to do anything in reality except acknowledge that what I was feeling was real. He believed me. He knew that I was slowly declining – a little less able to do this thing here, a little less willing to even have the energy go on that walk there.
There is something wrong.
Cut to: January 2021, I was feeling even more run down and frustrated with myself for giving up, for not pushing harder and finally getting back into some workout routine that got me back to where I was. Covid and the quarantine didn’t de-stress anyone and I took the calendar change to make it my mission to feel better no matter what. This had been going on for far too long, and I clearly wasn’t nearly as sick as I felt like I was, so I needed to just Get. It. Together. I’d started running outside a few times a week, below-freezing temps be damned. And it was harder than I remembered. My breathing was more labored, I’d get chest pains as I’d inhale and exhale. But it was the cold air. This pain was normal. I’d been feeling this pain for more than a year, after-all, and several doctors much smarter and more experienced than I am had told me there was nothing wrong. It would probably subside. This was normalized pain to me now.
But after weeks of labored, slooooow, frustrating runs outside in the snow, I decided to get a treadmill. If you haven’t caught onto the theme here, I’m stubborn. When I set my mind to something – whether it’s exercising or watching an entire season of Felicity on Hulu in one evening – I usually don’t fail. And yet…
I figured running inside would finally solve my problem of not being able to quite get back to the activity level I’d been used to. So I kept running. I ran every day on that treadmill, embarrassingly slow and with lots of chest pain. But after a few weeks of regular pain each time I ran, having to stop four or five times in a 20 minute period, the voice inside my head that had been with me for the last 15 months started screaming:
THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG.
And that’s when I finally sent the text to my mom that changed everything.
“Call your doctor NOW,” she wrote back.
And so I did.
But this time, something was different. I think he could see the desperation in my eyes. He also knew that something had changed. My previously “normal” chest pains were now consistently happening when I would walk or run. I failed the stress test, unable to even walk on the treadmill without doubling over. So he gave me a nuclear stress test that revealed what I’d been waiting to hear for a year and a half: “You were right. There’s something wrong with your heart.”
It was something very wrong. So wrong that I’d gone from running through pain to not being able to get up from a seated position without pain, dizziness, and trouble breathing. I’d run marathons. I’d logged thousands of miles over years of my life and now I couldn’t walk half a block with my kids without turning around, sitting down, and watching my pulse race, gasping for just one deep breath. The quality of my life had gone from tolerating the consistent pain to being in so much pain and discomfort that I couldn’t be left alone with my kids. That I couldn’t be left alone, period. The quality of my life is not what I was hanging onto in those last days before I was admitted to the hospital – just staying alive long enough for them to fix what was wrong was the singular goal. I was 43 years old and a doctor was about to literally go into my heart and fix me.
Let’s be clear. I am here because of the brilliance of a kind, skilled, experienced, and thoughtful interventional cardiologist. I’m here because my mom insisted that I call the doctor again when I’d all but given up after more than a year of pain. I’m here because another kind, skilled, experienced, and thoughtful cardiologist promised me that “we’d get to the bottom of this” when he realized that there was something wrong. I’m here because I have health insurance. I’m here because I got extremely lucky. I’m here because I have a support system to help take care of my family when I’m sick. I’m here because I have an exceptionally flexible and understanding job that gave me any and all of the time that I needed to get to the bottom of this.
And I’m here because I spoke up. Because there was something wrong. And even though the voice was faint and small at times, it was always there. Always reminding me that I knew myself better than anyone else, degrees be damned. That “stress” was not the reason I couldn’t pick my kids up anymore. A vacation wasn’t going to miraculously allow me to walk without passing out.
Mama, if you’re anything like me, we will get to you and your issues once we’ve: worked, parented, spent time with our spouses, gotten the groceries, packed the bags for camp, ordered the supplies for school, cleaned the house, made the dinner, checked in with friends and families so as not to be a crappy friend/sister/daughter/etc., made the lists, and responded to the concerns that you seem stressed. After you do that, then you’ll get to that doctor’s appointment, check that mole, address that pain, finally make the call for your annual that is now 14 months overdue. That’s when you’ll get around to you.
I had a 99% blockage in my heart that they can’t explain. My bloodwork doesn’t explain it, my lifestyle doesn’t explain it, even my past life choices don’t explain it - and I can usually always find a way to blame it on 25 year old Becky! But there it was, blocking the largest artery in my heart, cutting off oxygen to such a large portion of it that one of two doctors in the OR said that I was the luckiest person in the world to be alive after what they saw. A blockage that found Ian and I having some of the darkest and realest conversations of our marriage. A blockage commonly referred to as “the widow-maker.”
September 29th marks the six month anniversary from the day these brilliant doctors fixed my heart. A month from now, you’ll be able to find me at a Halloween Half marathon, breathing in the crisp, autumn air because I listened to my (and my mom’s) voice. Speak up mama. Listen to your body. Ask the follow-up questions. Get a second opinion. Or a third. Make the appointment. Keep persisting when that voice inside you just won’t stop. Even if it’s quiet. Even if it’s shaky. Even if it feels kinda’ crazy.
It just might save your life.