By Barbara Van Horn
Life is a precious gift given to us by God. We need to cherish and treasure each day. We hear those words all the time but often they don’t mean much until you come close to losing that precious gift of life.
Up until about three months ago I considered myself a healthy person. At age 65 I was not overweight and my cholesterol and blood pressure were fine. I felt that I ate a somewhat healthy diet. Before I retired I had always qualified for all of the “good health” discounts on my company’s health insurance plan. I went each year for my annual physical and was always given a clean bill of health. But starting last summer every time I rode my bike or walked at a brisk pace I would feel tightness in my chest. The tightness always went away as soon as I stopped exerting. In October I went to see my family doctor with my concerns. He entered my numbers for weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc., into his computer, did an EKG, and told me that I had a 95% chance of never having heart problems which was information I was very happy to hear. That being said, I think we as women need to be aware of the signs and warning signals our bodies tell us and if we think something is not right, we need to insist on further testing.
In January my husband Dave and I became “Snowbirds” and went to Florida for three months. While in Florida the tightness in my chest returned each time I tried to walk. Looking back over my journey I am struck by the knowledge that God was beside me with each step I took, watching out for me each and every day. Due to having had foot surgery in late October my walking for exercise was very limited and I did not exert myself or walk as much as I might have while in Florida. (Was this God’s way of protecting me?) In the midst of our three-month Florida visit we returned home for a week near the end of February. Since I was still very concerned about the continued tightness in my chest, I made a second appointment with my family doctor to discuss my concerns again. This time he listened to me and told me he wanted to schedule a nuclear stress test although the chances of my getting an appointment in the next two days before our return to Florida were very slim. When they called to schedule the test, amazingly an appointment was available the very next day. (God was watching out for me.)
Prior to the stress test, as the technician was injecting me with the nuclear dye, I asked him if I would have an issue going through the metal detector at the airport as we were flying back to Florida the next day. He replied that he was glad I had mentioned this to him as they don’t normally review stress test results until the following day but because of our plans to leave, he would ask the doctor to review the results immediately. (Another example of God’s being there with me.) The technician also mentioned the name of the doctor who ordered my test. It was not a name I was familiar with and thought that was unusual but I didn’t say anything.
After the test was completed, Dave and I were sitting in the waiting room and a doctor we didn’t know walked in carrying the test results. He sat down, looked at us and said, “Do I know you?” We replied, “No.” The doctor then asked, “Are you one of my patients?” Again we answered no and explained that my family doctor had ordered the test. The doctor was very nice, introduced himself and said he was going call my family doctor. What Dave and I did not know at that point was that we had been talking to one of the area’s top cardiologists and we were also unaware of how fortunate I was to be seen by this physician. (Again the hand of God was there.) When he came back the doctor indicated he had a full schedule of patients to see but if we could wait until the end of the day, he would like to talk with us after hours.
How blessed I have been to be treated by this very caring and knowledgeable physician. The doctor spent over an hour talking with us at the end of his day. He explained that he felt there could be a blockage in the back portion of my heart that the test results did not show. Knowing that we were scheduled to return to Florida the next day to conclude the purchase of a condo, the doctor advised he felt confident he could control my symptoms with five different medications. I was given very explicit instructions to call him every Tuesday and to go to the emergency room if I experienced pain in my chest. So back to Florida I went with medications to be taken for six weeks. During our time back in Florida, as I was taking all of the new medicines, the tightness in my chest seemed to go away. Each of the next six weeks I reported that I was feeling fine. I was also feeling very relieved. We returned home during the second week of April on Friday and on the following Monday I was able to get a follow-up appointment with the cardiologist. It was decided I would have a heart catheterization on Wednesday to determine if there were any blockages.
Wednesday arrived and we showed up bright and early for the heart catheterization. I felt good knowing very shortly we would know if anything was wrong and how to fix it. As I was being wheeled into the heart cath lab, the nurse told me I would not be totally sedated and that I would be aware of what was going on but that I would not feel any pain. It did not seem to me that I had been in the cath lab very long when I looked up and saw my husband. Dave and the doctor were reviewing four large computer monitors hanging from the ceiling containing pictures of the inside of my heart.
Dave later told me that as he was being escorted into the cath lab, the nurse remarked that she did not know what was going on because they do not normally have family members come into the lab. The doctor’s first words to Dave were, “We have a very serious problem.” The doctor then proceeded to show him four major blockages in my heart; one artery had both a 99% and a 70% blockage and another artery had a 90% and a 60% blockage. He stated, “I cannot believe she has not already had a major heart attack. In fact, I cannot believe she is still alive.” The doctor indicated he would insert a catheter and try to place two large stents in my heart to open the blockages. Since he was not sure he would be able to accomplish this due to the severity of the blockages, he advised if that procedure failed, I would be sent immediately for open heart surgery.
Surely the hand of God was with the cardiologist that day. He was able to place stents into the two arteries in my heart. When they wheeled me out of the heart cath lab and back to my room I really had no concept that I had been in there over three hours nor did I know the extent of what had been done. The first thing I saw as we neared my room was Dave and my doctor standing in the hall. Dave was crying and the doctor was hugging him. I eventually learned that they were tears of joy when Dave got the report of success in opening the blocked arteries and also that there had been no damage to my heart as a result of the blockages.
Later that same day Dave shared with me his feelings about the emotional roller coaster he had experienced when the doctor explained to him the significance of my situation and how extremely fortunate I was to be alive. Dave noted that at first it was almost hard to believe because of how well I had felt the last few weeks while we were in Florida. Then moments later when reality set in and he understood that I could possibly die while the doctor was attempting to place the stents or during open heart surgery if needed, he was overtaken with fear. He told me about how he spent much of the next two hours praying and texting our five children with updated information as it became available. I was told an emotional dam broke inside him when the doctor came into the waiting room and shared with him the pictures of my heart both before and after the procedure and explained that I should be fine.
How can I not believe that God was there for me every step of the way? How can I not be extremely grateful to have been given this second chance? Each day is a miracle to me, a blessing day given to me to be able to spend more time with my husband, five children, nine grandchildren, family and friends. I now find my days full of trying to do “the right thing”; exercising, eating a heathier diet, living as stress free as possible and being grateful.
I was told by some medical personnel during my hospital stay that if I had been a man and had presented myself to the doctors with the same symptoms initially, I would have been treated differently and taken more seriously. We each need to listen to what our bodies are saying to us. We know when something is “not right”. Listen and take action. And most importantly, enjoy and appreciate each day. Be thankful for our blessings and be joyful for this wondrous gift of life.