Heart attacks are a fairly common occurrence and one of the leading causes of death around the world, especially in North America. And because of that, most people are familiar with the associated symptoms. But like everything else in life, unless you have actually experienced a heart attack and survived, most people don’t know what it's truly like.
I am extremely fortunate because I survived a massive heart attack that resulted from a 100% blockage of one of the veins behind my heart. Although It’s natural to assume that I must have experienced a considerable amount of pain during my medical episode, the reality was surprisingly different.
In my specific case, there was an acute sensation inside my chest that was undeniable. It was a combination of a burning and cutting feeling that ran from the bottom of my neck to my belly button. I knew my body intimately and intuitively as a result of my active lifestyle and physical training, and my intuition was telling me that whatever was going on inside my body was near my heart.
I wouldn't say that I was overly alarmed initially, but I did possess an underlying sense of doom that wouldn't go away. I had been certified as a first aider and personal trainer for years and because of this, I was well acquainted with all of the classic symptoms of a heart attack. This knowledge should have been the catalyst to convince me to go for help, but a strange thing happened instead. I immediately started going through a mental checklist to prove to myself that I wasn’t having a heart attack.
I noted that I didn’t have any pain in my shoulder or upper arm. I didn’t have excruciating pain in my chest. My breathing and heart rate appeared to be normal. I wasn’t feeling terribly nauseous or sick. And I didn’t drop to the floor unconscious.
Looking back in hindsight, I realize that I was simply experiencing a common reaction that many people go through when faced with a life threatening situation…denial. But as much as I kept trying to convince myself that I couldn’t be having a heart attack, deep down I knew there was something wrong.
Even in spite of all of that, I still decided to hold off for a while longer and went to bed hoping to sleep the problem away. I was sure that in the morning I would wake up and the pain would be a distant memory that I could chuckle about. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to sleep through a heart attack because the sensation kept waking up throughout the night. This would cause my brain to go into overdrive as I repeatedly contemplated the various scenarios that might play out, including the prospect that I could suddenly drop dead.
I eventually got out of bed in the early morning to have a cup of tea along with a crumpet and jam. I decided that this would be the line in the sand that determined whether I would go to the hospital or not. And of course, my small breakfast did absolutely nothing to alleviate the burning sensation inside my chest.
I’m sharing this information for everyone’s benefit because it is important to seek medical attention if you believe you may be going through a serious medical crisis. As much as I knew my own body, and was educated about all the symptoms of a heart attack…I still put off going to the hospital. I now know through experience that delaying the inevitable could have cost me my life or resulted in a horrific medical crisis with lifelong implications. I also learned from my trip to the emergency department that having a heart enzyme test is imperative because sometimes the other tests they complete don't necessarily show there is anything wrong. I can't emphasize enough that this test can make the difference between life and death in some cases.
I suspect that most people who suffer a heart attack experience the same feeling of disbelief and denial that I did. It's a common reaction to give ourselves any number of reasons why we can’t possibly be facing a life threatening situation instead of looking at the scientific facts. Heart attacks and strokes are a daily occurrence and they don’t discriminate in any way…even if you believe you"re protected as a result of living a healthy lifestyle.
If you consider yourself at risk for a heart attack (over forty years of age, poor physical condition, smoker) and you experience symptoms, don’t needlessly delay seeking medical attention. And it's important to remember that you only need one symptom, and not all of them. The chest discomfort I felt was totally unique and something I had never felt before in my entire life. It should have been enough to motivate me to go to the hospital, right away.
The fact that I’m here and able to write this is proof that getting the appropriate medical attention may not only save your life, but also prevent a massive stroke or other medical crisis that could prove devastating.
I will be following up this post in the near future with my personal perspective on what it is like going through a life threatening situation and how that affects a person psychologically and emotionally.