And I was afraid to go to sleep

by Sandra

Let me just preface this story by saying that I am a relatively healthy individual. I haven’t needed major medical attention since I was a premature infant, unless you count that time I broke my foot freshman year of college and got prodded by the on-campus doctor and an x-ray that showed my splintered foot bone.

With that said, I landed in the emergency room twice this weekend.

The first time was on Thursday morning. It was a morning like any other; quieter, even, than normal—not a lot of work going on. I was sitting at my desk when I felt what I can best describe as a “rushing” feeling, coursing through my veins and then a rush of blood to my head. Disconcerted, I got up, went to the bathroom, got a drink of water, all in an attempt to shake it off, whatever it was. I sat back down. My chest started to hurt a little bit and about five minutes later, I started to feel dizzy. That triggered what I now know was a panic attack, but at the time I thought it was a heart attack.

I stumbled my way to the front desk area where two of my coworkers were talking. The look on my face must have been one of horror, because it was reflected back at me through their faces. I mumbled something about needing to go to the hospital, and one woman, K, bolted upright, grabbed her keys and came around the desk. She didn’t hesitate. Lucky for us, there’s a hospital two blocks from the office, and by the time I found my way to the ER, I was shaking and breathing hard.

The two nurses at the front desk were as cool as cucumbers as I explained, in broken speech, that I thought I was having a heart attack and needed to see someone. They politely asked me to fill out a form, but I made it clear to them that I was in no condition to fill out any stupid form, and I was on my knees, practically begging them to take me in. One came around and guided me behind the desk, where he took my vitals and printed out a wrist band. I was then ushered by a different nurse into a different room and an EKG was administered. I apologized for my hairy legs and she just laughed and said, “oh, I’ve seen worse.”

Finally I was guided to a bed in a room that held an elderly woman and her caretaker behind a thin curtain. Told to get into my gown and onto the bed, I did as I was told, tying the gown tight enough in the back to cover the entirety of my ass. They gave me a blanket to keep warm, and my new-new nurse was so efficient that I barely noticed as she extracted five vials of blood from my arm and left me with an iv portal that was quickly filled with a bag of saline fluid. A chest monitor was hooked up and its number slowly went from 130 to 110 to 95 to 70.

A doctor came in and said my EKG was accelerated but not irregular. Then a financial-type came in with forms for me to sign and explained that my co-pay was $100 and asked if I wanted to pay that in cash or charge. Someone gave me a cup to pee in. Another nurse came with a portable x-ray machine. A couple of hours later, I was diagnosed with heart palpitations, was told to cut out caffeine consumption and try and reduce stress, given a cardiologist’s number as a referral, and sent home.

It was a scary experience, but it was alleviated by the nurses’ friendly, professional demeanor and the general breeziness of everyone I encountered. They were all like stewardesses:  trained to stay calm in an emergency, and their calmness kept me calm. The clean, well-kept emergency room helped, too. At the time, I didn’t know what had happened to me. I didn’t understand the connection between that lightheaded feeling and the panic attacks. All I knew was that I hadn’t had a heart attack, something that, along with being in a plane crash and major earthquake, constitutes a fairly irrational but very real fear.

Once I was home, I spent most of the weekend on my back, by myself, self-monitoring. Very closely self-monitoring. Every heart beat, every breath, every little ache and itch and throb registered and my over-stimulated brain processed them as potential threats. My chest felt tight, my arm felt tight, my fingers throbbed. I swore I heard my heart stop once on Saturday afternoon, a realization that caused me to jump up from the couch and grab the phone to call my roommate before it was too late.

I had another panic attack on Saturday. I cried on the phone to my Mom and then Molly and then talked to her roommate Madeline about taking deep breaths. She was very calm. I was still scared. It’s not like when you have a cold or the flu and you know what to do to take care of yourself. When you suspect your vital organs of misfiring, there isn’t anything to do, there’s no way to handle it yourself. What do you do when your heart malfunctions? I don’t know, lay down and just take it?

Later that night Helen and I went to an art gallery opening and it took my mind off my heart. But later, back home, alone, in bed, trying to sleep, all I could do was worry. It was midnight and I called Mom again and said, “why am I rationalizing not going to the hospital when something might be really wrong?” Earlier in the weekend she’d read off a list of signs to look out for when you’re experiencing a heart attack. Chest pains, pains in the arm, dizziness, shortness of breath. I was feeling all these things to various degrees, but again, a heart attack and a panic attack sound similar on paper. But I called Helen anyway, and she drove me to the nearest hospital, Hollywood Presbyterian.

I filled out the forms this time and took a seat along with a squadron of half-sleeping, would-be patients. Someone had puked in the bathroom sink. Mold caked the tile grout. The toilet paper and the paper towels were out. I scrubbed myself with antibacterial hand sanitizer. This was a very different hospital than the one on Thursday. A triage nurse finally saw me at 2:30. She took my vitals and administered another EKG. There was blood on the floor of the triage room and in the back, on the cot, I noticed a wastebasket full of bloody gauze. “I’m going to expose you,” she’d say with cold efficiency every time she pulled my gown down to slap a diode under my breast or on my arm. I just kept my eyes on the ceiling the whole time, listening to the constant thrum of the air vent as it pumped out it’s dry, cool-warm air.

My vitals were normal. She suggested I stay and see the doctor and he could decide if they wanted to admit me. Admit me? I didn’t think it was all that serious. She said she was concerned. The kind of concern that spread like an infection, but I thought I was annoyed with her because she wasn’t telling me what I wanted to hear. I asked her how long she thought it would be before I could see the doctor. There were two paramedic cases they had to attend to, so it would be two hours, tops. Two hours?! I sent Helen home and she said to call her when I was done.

In the waiting room, I felt another rush of blood to my head and my head went fuzzy. Another panic attack hit.  I found the triage nurse again and explained that I was having an episode. She offered me the bed where I’d been given my EKG and a Styrofoam cup of water. I laid down and sat up and got up and paced around the dingy room with blood in the wastebasket. I told God that I didn’t want to die there, alone, in the place with the bad florescent lighting and then told him I hadn’t prayed about this because I was terrified that if I told him to just do his will that he’d kill me, since death is no big deal to God, but that honestly I didn’t want to go just yet.

I calmed down enough to lay down but was still afraid to sleep for fear that I wouldn’t get back up again. To distract myself, I started thinking about everything that had happened. How each time I had that blood rush feeling, each time I got dizzy, nothing happened. There was no seize, no fallout, no attack, nothing. And that I had been diagnosed at the first hospital with heart palpitations because I’d gone in having a panic attack. I thought about the tightness I’d been feeling in my chest and arms, and wondered if I was working myself into a frenzy, that I was doing this to myself. As I realized this, my breaths got deeper, and my chest started to loosen up. I nodded off, snapping my eyes open each time, until eventually they didn’t. I dozed for about an hour. Allowing sleep to come was an epiphany moment. I finally relaxed.

A nurse came in and took the trash out. I opened my eyes, needed to pee. The bathroom was finally clean, too. I was about to collect my things and go when another nurse told me the doctor was ready for me. I got into another gown and explained my entire story to an RN, assuming, for whatever reason, that he was the doctor. His arms were covered in tattoos and he smelled of cigarette smoke. But it was almost 7:00 in the morning and my adrenaline was still going and I needed someone to talk to. Not twenty seconds later, the doctor pulls the curtain back and I told the whole story over again. He agreed with me that I didn’t need further blood work or another chest x-ray. “Looking at you, you don’t look like someone who just had a heart attack,” he said. He also said that my blood pressure was fine and my heart rate was good and that as a healthy person who’s 30-years-old, it would be extremely rare for me to be experiencing heart problems, even after I explained that my grandmother had had a heart attack when she was 35. He told me to get a cardiologist referral from my doctor, and sent me home.

On the way out I saw the tattooed RN again and he said he hoped I hadn’t waited too long. I said I’d been there since 12:30. “Ouch,” he said, “have a nice day.”

So I’m out $200, but am convinced I’m going to live. The tightness in my chest is gone, but my arm still hurts from time to time. I took a long walk this evening after work as a way to get my heart really pumping again, to reset the switch, so to speak. It’ll be interesting to see if the cardiologist has anything to say, or if anything else will come of this, but at least now I can say I’m no longer afraid to close my eyes and get some sleep.