Living Through Fatality

Confessions of a neglected "heart attack" sufferer.

HEALTH Patient Story: During a particularly stressful time in my life, two friends were helping me assemble a recliner in my home. Jocularity was suddenly interrupted by intense pain. No longer able to stand, I immediately tried to lay down on the sofa but slid onto the floor in an effort to get as low and, if possible, far away from what appeared to be a heavy weight compressing my chest. Still conscious, clutching my chest and assessing the situation, it reminded me of childhood wrestling matches with my older brother; he would playfully sit on my chest with knees straddled on my arms in order to compel surrender. Back then, I learned a defensive move to bring about relief. Now, there was no such opponent to disable. My chest was not expanding so I resorted to the second thing I learned from childhood wrestling; using my diaphragm, I forced rapid shallow breaths like a pregnant woman between contractions.

Time for Indecisiveness

My attention panned to the voices of my friends that were completely unprepared to act. The fact that I was barely 40 years old seemed sufficient enough reason to rule out a heart attack. "What's happening? Are you alright?" were questions to which I could not respond as all my energy was focused on continuing the shallow breathing while resisting the temptation to succumb to the intense chest pressure. "Should we call an ambulance?" I could only respond in my mind: "If I am having a heart attack, YES, phone 911 you idiots!" Then my thoughts became more irrational: "If I am not having a heart attack, it would be embarrassing to be wheeled out of here. I have a very high insurance deductible; this could be expensive."

After several minutes that seemed like hours, the "heavy weight" was lifted off my chest and I resumed normal breathing. Standing up, I began assessing what just happened. Sense I lived through it, "it must not have been a heart attack, right?" One friend tried to offer consolation by suggesting, "it may have just been a mild stroke." Minimizing the event, it could be stress. Go ahead and say it before I continue, "With friends like that, who needs enemies?" And, no, neither were named in my Last Will and Testament or life insurance beneficiaries. I lost track of time but it was only a few minutes of intense pain and I was feeling stress. Going to the ER after the crisis had subsided would have incurred an expensive bill. So we reasoned, "no harm, no foul."

Had I fell to the floor motionless, turning every shade of purple, I would like to think my friends would have taken more decisive action. Or if the same situation occurred in a public setting, an increased number of spectators may have urged someone to make the call. The bottom line is most people are unprepared to handle a life-threatening situation. It was several years before I even acknowledged what I felt was symptomatic of a heart attack (or a collapsed lung, called pneumothorax). [1,2]

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Heart attack symptoms run the gamut from shortness of breath to indigestion to throbbing chest pain. Some people experience a combination of symptoms; others don't have any at all. They can be very sudden and for other people, they could be long-term problems, pains and simply discomforts. A heart attack is one that may come on and not last quite long, or for other people, it can be sudden and the pain can last for hours.

If you feel a heavy feeling in your chest, like someone is standing on your chest and you simply cannot catch your breath, this is a sign of a heart attack. If you've been feeling a pain that comes and goes, that's uncomfortable, that's a squeezing feeling or a sharp shooting pain, this could be signs of a heart attack. [2]

One more sign of a heart attack can be a shortness of breath. If you're a very active individual, you are aware what it will feel like when you are unable to catch your breath or take in a deep breath. The signs of a heart attack consist of not being able to take a breath, or a deep breath which can consequently leave you feeling dizzy and feeling as if you need to sit down for a while. A heart attack symptom is not one that you ought to disregard. If you're feeling combinations of symptoms, it can be very important to reach your doctor as soon as possible.

If you feel pains or discomfort in your arms, legs or in the chest, and you feel as though your neck or jaw are hurting uncontrollably, these might be further signs of a heart attack. Heart attack symptoms will vary from one individual to another, but pain that's not normal, that you do not generally feel, in conjunction with shortness of breath and or a tightness in your chest could be a large sign that you're heading towards a heart attack.

Lessons Learned

Thankfully, I lived through a potentially fatal ordeal. Subsequent medical exams have revealed no evidence of damage. In fact, it likely was not a heart attack. Though difficult to diagnose in hindsight, a pulmonary embolism can present the same symptoms. [3] Nevertheless, there are some lessons to pass along.

  • Learn common heart attack symptoms. [1]
  • Don't delay. Get help if symptoms last more than a few minutes. [2]
  • Have emergency numbers on speed dial. [2]
  • Post CPR signs in public places.
  • Learn and become certified to perform CPR. [4]

What would you have done if you experienced the pain described? What would you have done as an onlooker?

Tags: cardiologist, myocardio infarction, near death, transient ischemic attack

  1. Pneumothorax. Mayo Clinic
  2. Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs. American Heart Association
  3. Pulmonary embolism .
  4. National CPR Certification