When I walked up to the registration desk at the local ER last Thursday, I self-reported my symptoms as “heart attack symptoms,” just so they knew I wasn’t shitting around. Ain’t no body got time for that.
They walked me back to triage immediately, where the nurse who didn’t wear a name tag and had green stains on her fingers from her vintage copper rings asked me the standard questions about my health history and habits. My lips were numb and I felt dizzy, but somehow I managed the litany - no, no, no, two cups a day, a 3 right now but it was a 9 earlier, March 6th, Sulfa, yes I drove myself.
They rushed me back to a room, instructed me to put on a gown, and within 10 minutes had drawn blood, inserted the most painful IV I’ve ever had, and had finished my EKG and a chest Xray. The were in such a rush they let me keep my pants and shoes on.
When they asked, repeatedly, why I was there I said, “I’ve been having stabbing pains in my chest radiating to my shoulder and forearm for two hours. I feel like I’m choking on my own air. I’m having hot flashes and I’m nauseous. I’m either having a heart attack or a panic attack. I figured better safe than sorry.”
In other words, I was there either because I was about to die or because something tricked my fight or flight response into thinking I was. I just couldn’t tell which one at the time.
When the doctor came in he asked me why I was there: “I’ve been having stabbing pain in my chest… I can breathe but I…”
“Let me stop you right there. I read your EKG. It’s picture perfect.”
I didn’t know whether to be pissed off at him for not listening to me or to sing alleluia that my heart was in fine working order. I finally mumbled a single word: “Good.”
He ordered more blood work, Vintage Nurse sent a tech in to clean up all my blood that had spilled all over the bed, floor, and gown in their rush to get my IV in, and I waited. It was then that the tears came.
It’s not that I wasn’t happy nothing was wrong with my heart - of course I was. Of course I am. But a whole new level of anxiety sets in when you realize that you drove yourself to the hospital and are getting ready to be discharged with nothing identified as wrong other than your own broken nervous system.
The first time I had what I now refer to as a Monster Panic Attack was when I was 29. It was the week of my finals in grad school, my mom was visiting, and friends and I were planning a movie screening of Invisible Children at Erykah Badu’s old theater in Dallas. I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat feeling nauseous. When I woke up a few minutes later, I was laying in a pool of my own urine on the bathroom floor and had hit my head on the toilet. I walked back to our bedroom, laid down on the bed, and told Matt to call an ambulance because I thought I had a stroke. A few hours, and every test in the book later, I was discharged because I was fine. It was just stress induced, they said.
A few years back, I woke up again in the middle of the night, with cold sweats, nausea, a racing heart, and what felt like a band of fire spreading across my back. It would come and go in waves that matched my heart beat - fire, fine, fire, fine. I had Matt drive me to the ER that time. A few hours later, I was discharged because I was fine. Stress, oh, and I might want to lay off the caffeine.
Thursday night I drove myself to the hospital. The kids were asleep and I didn’t want to disturb them. Sure, there were a couple neighbors I could call to come over, but I didn’t want to bother them either. Honestly, I knew there was a good chance that, once again, I’d be discharged as A-OK and I didn’t want to have to explain - “Yep, it was just a panic attack.” Matt stayed home with the kids and we kept in touch via text. It wasn’t that big of a deal, I rationalized. Just better safe than sorry is all. Even still, as I sat there with electrodes glued on my chest and an IV in my arm, waiting for lab results, I couldn’t help but cry because I felt, for the first time in a very long while, utterly and completely alone.
Thanks to the nurses’ efficiency and our rural location, I was in and out and back home about an hour later. My EKG, blood work, and chest Xray all clear. I’d live to see another day, thank God. My discharge slip officially said “Chest wall pain,” which felt like nothing but sympathy on the doctor’s part. The doc said he thought it was likely muscular and that the pain triggered a panic attack. He encouraged me to take some Advil for the pain and follow up with my primary doc. I could tell he was trying hard not to treat me as if I had wasted his time.
By the time I drove home, the chest pain had started to subside a bit. What lingered was the shame. Relief that the only two people who knew were Matt and one of my best friends. Fear of being judged by everyone in that hospital for showing up without a “real” problem. Frustration even though I’ve been part of an intentional community for nearly 9 years, since it’s in a state of duress now when I needed help, I didn’t want to bother anyone. And then I thought about the money - I’m sure that little episode racked up $5000 in medical bills. Thanks anxiety, my little friend.
I tried to reassure myself with two things: the Hamilton soundtrack and the idea that drove me to the ER in the first place … better safe than sorry.