Last Wednesday morning, at 5:30, I woke up with my heart racing like a NASCAR competitor. I rolled over and tried deep breathing, but my heart ignored the vast quantities of oxygen I poured in and out of my lungs. (I have a trumpet player acquaintance who swears his trumpet-breath training saved his life during a heart attack. So I thought it was worth a try. I guess it doesn’t work for woodwinds.)
So I sat up on the side of my bed in the dark and panicked. Which sent my out-of-control ticker into the tilt zone. But really, I told myself, wasn’t this the product of a month of my doctor trying to find a blood pressure medication that would keep mine normal and not give me the backache the current one gave me. Surely I wasn’t going to die of a pounding heart brought on by the recent three-day trial of a DIFFERENT DRUG? Then I decided NOT to answer that question.
I went down to the kitchen and swallowed the effective, but offending drug we were trying to replace, reasoning that the back pain you know is preferable to the death you don’t know. I went back to bed, and somehow my pulse went back to normal. I fell asleep congratulating myself on saving the cost of the ER visit and remaining alive, all with one tiny pill that was just going to give me a severely aching back while it kept me on this side of Eternity.
BUT THEN -
I was awake once more. And my heart was now racing along again in the danger zone. It was no longer impressed that I was willing to endure back pain to get it to behave. And it had developed this funky new symptom, pressure on my chest. I sat up again and considered my options. There was no one home but me and the retrievers, who don’t drive. One child was in Seattle. Not an option. One was in a classroom teaching with a brand new job on the other side of town. Not an option. The third was in his second week of law school, in class, also on the other side of town. Strike Three.
I reminded myself people in my family live a long, long time. All I had to do was drive myself to the hospital. I was tough. I could do it. After all, I’d given birth to three children after the age of thirty-six, wimping out to anesthesia only on child number three.
So for twenty minutes, I listened to Frank Sinatra sing Mack the Knife and tried to pretend my heart wasn’t going faster than my MiniCooper. I picked Mack, not because I like the lyrics, but there’s this feel-good jazz interlude that’s all big band and no vocals. And if I was heading to the Other Side, I wanted Count Basie to give me a Big Send Off with trumpets blazing. I drove, and breathed as I counted the red lights to the ER.
The staff grabbed me at once and stuck electrodes everywhere. And by their reaction, which went from OMG to Oh, hum, I wasn’t having a heart attack. After a lady with a clipboard asked if I had an “Advanced Directive” and I told her “No, that means death is not an option today,” (she didn’t get the joke) a serious young ER doc told me the vampires would be after my blood, and then he would figure out what was making my heart run like a racehorse.
I had no one to talk to. I lay on my back and stared at the layers of gray metal light fixture on the ceiling and tried more deep breathing. My heart slowed its pace slightly, but nothing like what I needed to be comfortable.
I decided to think about SOMETHING ELSE. But what? I considered the possibility, Advanced Directive or no, the Universe had decided my number was up. Would the petals of the industrial light fixture above my head slowly dissolve into the long white-tunnel everyone talked about? Would heading into the light be easier than lying here alone, trying not to worry the EKG might have been wrong because my heart was not with the slow-down program? Would I get to come back and write a bestseller about Heaven which I already remembered from Before I Was Born? Had it changed much? Heaven Before and After didn’t sound dramatic enough for the bestseller list. And then it might seem boring that I’d already been there and remembered the place.
The ER doc returned to look at the heart monitor. Surely a bad sign, I thought.
“Wow, your heart rate’s high!”
Tell me something I don’t know. Was this doctor-speak for the white tunnel is on it’s way?
“Don’t name a number,” I said. I figured the freak-out from that information would send me into Eternal Oz to hang with the Wizard for sure.
He nodded and made way for the vampire cart.
Now I began to wonder if I should call my children. After all, they had no idea where I was or that my heart was doing a tap dance that might not have an encore. But the nurse had promised me an answer within the hour after the lab had given the results to the serious ER doc. So I decided to delay announcement of my possible demise. In the meantime, my heart had taken a new view of woodwind breathing and was beginning to turn down the metronome.
In the end, the vampires had the answer. The new medication coupled with the weird diet the doctor’s nutritionist had come up with (another story) had washed out all my potassium. And hearts can’t hold a tempo without their potassium. They rush like a junior high band on steriods playing a Sousa march. So after an hour of fluid dripped into my vein and twenty minutes of drinking the nastiest tasting potassium liquid on the planet, I was wiped up, dusted off and sent HOME.
It could have been worse. I’m glad it’s over. I eat an avocado, now, every day. Better source of potassium and a whole lot cheaper than the ER.