By Trymaine Lee
As told to Jennifer Clopton
I didn’t go to the ER the night I had a heart attack – in part, because it was inconvenient. But also, it seemed unnecessary.
I didn’t think I could really be having a heart attack. And, in my defense, several health care professionals I saw at the time didn’t either.
I was only 38. I have no family history of heart disease. I was probably a few pounds overweight, but overall was pretty healthy. I’m a former high school and college athlete. I don’t smoke, have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, and my yearly check ups never highlighted any problems.
So I didn’t even think about a heart attack when I first felt some discomfort in my chest. The next day, it came back stronger. I felt like someone was kneeling on my chest, and I got dizzy too, so I did visit a clinic. The doctor sent me home suggesting it was just gas and added as I walked out the door - “Don’t worry. You aren’t going to drop dead tomorrow.”
The following night, around 3 am, the pressure came back. Only, this time, it felt like someone was jamming a beach ball into my chest, pumping it up so it nearly exploded and then pumping it up some more. I felt dizzy and nauseous and immediately called 9-1-1.
But by the time paramedics got there 12-15 minutes later, my symptoms had largely passed and I only had a little discomfort in my chest. Emergency crews did an EKG that showed normal results, and they never warned that I could have had a heart attack. In fact, they didn’t even suggest I should go to the hospital. They asked me if I wanted to. My daughter had to be at camp the next morning. My wife had to travel, and I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. So I chose to stay home. I tossed and turned in bed that night and felt some discomfort, but it still never occurred to me that I was having a heart attack.
In fact, nobody even mentioned the term ‘heart attack’ to me for much of the next day – not at the clinic when I went for an initial follow up, nor at the hospital where I was sent for more tests. The first time I heard that term was nearly 16 hours after paramedics had answered my 9-1-1 call. It was about 7pm the next night in the cardiac catheterization lab – where doctors do procedures to diagnose and treat heart issues.
‘You are a lucky man. You had a heart attack,’ the cardiologist said quite urgently, after discovering that one of my arteries was 95% blocked.
How did I not know? How did so many others miss this? The truth is - we still tend to think of a heart attack as something that happens to people who are old, overweight, or obese. I was none of those things, so doctors weren’t thinking about a heart attack, and neither was I.
Now I try to spread the word to others - the moment something feels amiss, go to the doctor for a check up. Time is of the essence with heart attacks and your life truly may depend on it. My heart blockage has the harrowing nickname – the widow maker – because it is so often deadly.
I am extremely lucky that I survived. But surviving was just the beginning. I soon realized that being on this side of recovery held challenges I hadn’t expected.
At first I felt immense joy and elation about surviving my heart attack. It’s unbelievably emotional to realize how lucky you are to be here for the ones you love – for the little moments and big milestones of this incredible life we enjoy.
But in time, the weight of my near-death experience began to affect me as I started to wonder, Will it happen again? One night, when my wife was traveling for work, I remember lying on the sofa after putting my daughter to bed, and tears filled my eyes. What if I die in my sleep, I worried. What if my daughter finds me here? I could barely close my eyes that night as those thoughts raced through my mind.
In time I learned that those moments of fear are fleeting, and I am stronger than I realize. I’ve also come to see that it’s normal to worry. So instead of marinating on those negative thoughts, I work hard to recognize them as a normal part of my healing process. I pause, recognize the emotion, and let it pass by.
I’ve also come to realize that I’m not the only one struggling on this side of recovery. I get letters, emails, and messages every day from people telling me they’re experiencing trauma following their harrowing medical experiences too. Some have trouble sleeping or feel depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Others can’t stop ruminating about death, and their friends and family are often baffled by it all.
If you are feeling these things, I think it’s important to re-frame your experience. You’re not a victim. You’re a survivor. Whatever you feel is okay. Be kind to yourself. Give it time. If you need help – ask for it without shame. And realize that while we can’t change what has happened to us, there is so much we can control moving forward.
And I say this especially to the men out there because we’re even less likely than women to show weakness or vulnerability. But you don’t lose your man card for saying, “Sometimes I feel scared and I need help.” True strength comes not only from surviving a challenge – but then being open and honest about what comes next.
I can honestly tell you that I am now the best version of myself I have ever been. I live every day focused on improving my emotional and physical health. I am a vegetarian until 6 pm every day, I run 12 to 15 miles a week and I try to live in the moment and stay present by practicing mindfulness and meditation.
I still think about my heart attack a few times every day – but that’s a lot better than multiple times an hour. And I no longer feel those lightning bolts of fear that used to hit me out of nowhere. Now my overriding emotion is gratitude. I see all this as progress.
I know I’m getting stronger. I’m focusing on my day-to-day victories. I appreciate every breath and every day. I’m not letting the fear of death hold me back anymore; I’m just enjoying being alive.
Trymaine Lee is an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for MSNBC. He has also worked at The New York Times, The Huffington Post and he shared a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Hurricane Katrina as part of a team at The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. You can follow him on Twitter @trymainelee.
Learn more about Trymaine's story on WebMD's Health Now podcast.