I had an interesting start to my day last Monday. I hesitate to write about it, but here goes.
I awoke just before 5am, trying to catch my breath. I was breathing fine, but couldn’t seem to catch my breath. It was a bit like the feeling of holding your breath underwater, and racing toward the surface for the relief of fresh air…that never came. Luckily, I wasn’t drowning, but the experience was unnerving to say the least.
I figured going downstairs and starting my day would be just the ticket. As I reached downstairs, the problem wasn’t improving. Now, a wave of anxiety washed over me. I started wondering if my arms were tingling, did my chest hurt, was I having a heart attack!? I stood there in the dark for what seemed like an eternity. My mouth went dry, and still I couldn’t catch my breath.
Is this all in my head? Is this just anxiety over not being able to catch my breath? Am I going to be one of those stories of the guy who is in (almost) perfect health, and then has a heart attack?
I have a lot of other stories to live and tell. This is definitely not the one I want to have told about me today.
I decided to call 911.
After hanging up with them, I woke Janet and told her about the situation. She is awesome in these types of moments. Calm, focused. I felt comfort in not being alone. I still couldn’t catch my breath, but she was with me, and help was on the way. They’d figure this out.
I sat in my dining room, waiting for the paramedics to arrive, wondering if I’d ever catch my breath. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself how a guy who climbs stairs as a hobby, runs trails for fun, and takes long walks on my resting days could possibly be having a heart attack. Something else must be happening. I didn’t have much time to wonder, as the paramedics had arrived (probably only 3-4 minutes after my call). They hooked me up to their EKG, and started asking me a bunch of questions. Their readings all showed a perfectly beating heart, and 100% oxygen absorption. According to the monitors, I was in good shape. And yet, I couldn’t catch my breath.
They recommended I go to the Emergency Room to be checked out. Since they didn’t see any imminent danger, we decided to drive ourselves (rather than take the ambulance ride).
My anxiety subsided a bit, but still I couldn’t catch my breath. It’s a frustrating feeling. I have a new appreciation for what asthmatics, and others who have chronic breathing difficulty are going through.
ER check-in was smooth and easy, and within a couple minutes, I had seen the doctor, and was plugged into another EKG machine. A few minutes later, they took blood samples, and a chest X-ray. And still, I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t have any pain, just a growing irritation at not being able to breathe, and wondering where this was all going.
About a half hour later, the doctor stopped by and let us know that the blood work all came back normal. There was no trace of a heart enzyme that shows up in your blood if you’re having a heart attack. The chest X-ray showed nothing. They wanted me to stay for another two hours for observation, and then re-take the heart enzyme test.
Two hours later, I was beginning to breathe normally. Almost like a light switch, I wasn’t having trouble catching my breath. The second heart enzyme test came back negative. All good news. I was definitely not having a heart attack, and yet I clearly had something that messed up my breathing. They scheduled me to have a follow-up with my primary care doctor a couple days later.
One thing I’ve learned from being around technology all my life is that problems don’t just go away. If you don’t identify and solve the root cause, the problem will happen again at a time of its choosing. That’s exactly what happened about six hours later just as I finished eating dinner. I noticed my breathing problem came back. This time, I didn’t have the same anxiety. I “listened” more closely to what my body was telling me. It was telling me that this was somehow related to digestion. So, now I’m the guy who thought he was having a heart attack, but all he had was indigestion.
With this new theory in hand, I saw my primary care doctor and we reviewed everything that had happened. She listened, probed, checked all of the lab test results, and agreed that I’m most likely suffering from some level of acid reflux. The irritation from the acid is apparently interrupting my breathing. But, just to be certain, she scheduled me for a stress EKG test.
So, Monday I have paramedics in my house, and by Friday (Good Friday to be exact), I’m hooked up to yet another EKG machine, running on a treadmill at a twelve percent incline. Finally, something fun in this process…some exercise after having to take a week off.
The goal of a stress EKG is to put your body (specifically your heart) under an intense amount of stress and monitor how it reacts. According to the cardiology nurse who managed the test, it is about 85-90% accurate at identifying even minor cardiac issues. He told me that the electrical impulses of our heart can tell a lot about its health…especially when it’s pushed to its limits.
After about fifteen minutes, my heart rate was 175, and I was feeling great. Some water would have been nice, but that wasn’t an option. I have to admit that I enjoyed hearing one of the EKG technicians say that she’d never seen anyone run at this pace or incline for so long. Stairclimbers unite! I hope I represented us well.
The nurse asked if I was having any trouble breathing, or catching my breath. I wasn’t. We were hoping to push things hard enough to cause the problem to re-occur. No dice. I just kept running, getting thirstier, and wondering how long I should keep going. He asked me to continue at an even higher incline, as one last push to see if we could trigger the breathing problem. Nothing. Just calves that were thrashed and tired from the continuous climb. I was done, and the breathing issue never showed itself. My heart rate topped out at 180.
The good news is that my heart checked out just fine. The EKG nurse told me this provides great baselines for later in my life if an actual cardiac problem arises (something to look forward to, I guess). We’re working on the “acid” theory, so I’m on a regimen of Prilosec, and eliminating acid-causing foods from my diet.
My primary care doctor commended me on having the courage to dial 911 when I did. I hadn’t thought of it that way. She said that many people ignore warning signs that their body sends them…until it’s too late.
My decision to call 911 was a response to fear. Fear of not knowing what was happening. Fear that my life that I love so much may be ending. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, my life wasn’t in danger. Maybe courage is taking action in the face of fear, not merely because of it. Or, could it be that abject fear pushes us to reach out for help we never thought we’d need?
As I take yet another Prilosec and wonder if acid reflux is the root cause, I certainly have a greater appreciation for how quickly our lives can change.