By Frank Barron
Have you ever had a heart attack? You may have had one, but didn’t know it.
An attack doesn’t necessarily mean clutching your chest in panic and feeling like you are going to keel over. There are many symptoms — some very subtle. And it’s important that these red flags are noticed.
One night I woke up about 3 a.m. with what I thought was an anxiety attack. I couldn’t sleep. Felt nervous. Had difficulty breathing. I gasped and got out of bed, and wanted to go outside just to get air. I was extremely agitated. My wife calmed me down. And I finally got back to sleep about 7 a.m. — peacefully. And later that day felt fine. I could not think of a reason for the attack.
A couple of nights later, the whole episode repeated itself: very nervous and shallow breathing. I had to force myself to take deep breaths. I also felt cold, despite the house being very warm. There was tightness about the chest. But there was no wheezing or coughing. So I thought it might be a respiratory problem because it was the cold and flu season.
My wife continued to calm me down so I could breathe and get some rest.
These ‘anxiety attacks’ continued for a few more nights, yet I seemed fine during the day. Then exhaustion set in.
For years, my wife and I would walk about a mile several times a week. Then over a period of several months I started to slow down, and would only walk a block or two. After the bad nights I had been having, I couldn’t go more than a half a block without sitting down to rest. Even putting on and taking off garments seemed like a chore and exhausted me. The simplest task had me puffing, and I had to rest and relax for a few minutes to resume normal breathing.
But my wife noticed it was shallow breathing. And at night I couldn’t lie down. I had to try and sleep in a big lounge chair with my head propped up.
Finally my wife decided she was taking me to the Emergency Room at the Veteran’s hospital in West Los Angeles. I protested, but wisely, not too much.
The moment the ER doctor heard the symptoms he ordered an EKG. To my surprise, it confirmed that I had a mild heart attack.
The difficulty breathing, especially at night, and feeling of exhaustion were signs that the heart was not pumping enough blood. It was easy to mistake the signs for respiratory problems, but the problem was my heart.
There was enough blockage that the common procedure of inserting stents to help with blood flood was not sufficient. I had to have a quadruple bypass to restore blood flow to the heart. Veins are ‘harvested’ from the legs to create a new route for the blood to bypass the blockage.
Now here is one of the most important things you have to know. Don’t wait as long as I did to go to the ER. Because I waited since the first signs of difficulty breathing, fluid was building up in my lungs. Too much fluid had built up to do the bypass operation right away. I had to wait more than a week until the fluid was gone. It would have been a lot simpler if I had gone to the doctor at the first sign of trouble.
Although bypass operations are common, it is major open heart surgery, and your chest is literally cracked open. Complications can arise, and they did. I remained hospitalized for several weeks.
Even though you feel very weak, getting up and doing exercise afterward is extremely important. Don’t grumble about walking around the hospital hallways with the help of a walker and physical therapists, because it will help you improve faster.
In just a few weeks, arms and leg muscles can atrophy from only lying in bed. Don’t let that happen.
Also, after the operation there is a loss of appetite that can make you weak. The doctors and nurses said it would probably last a couple of weeks. My loss of appetite lasted a couple of months. Everyone progresses at his or her own pace. Don’t get discouraged if your recovery takes longer than the expectations of the experts.
For me, mild depression set in. Would I ever feel normal again? Would I ever walk again without the aid of my walker? Would I ever eat normally again?
Weeks went by, and then, yes — improvement. I didn’t tire as easily as before, and I got stronger.
It’s been two years now. I continue to go for checkups, and I am assured all is going well.
Two years ago, I never realized I had suffered a mild heart attack. I ignored the signs and my wife. And it could have turned into a massive heart attack — or worse — if I had waited any longer to seek help.
So now I tell everyone who will listen about the subtle warning signs: tightness of the chest (as if a weight is on your chest), shortness of breath, shallow breathing, fatigue after simple tasks etc.
If you have any of the symptoms, please, go see your doctor, now.