Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month may be over, but I’m still thinking a whole lot about hearts. Around the time others were opening up heart-shaped boxes and eating heart-shaped chocolates, my husband’s heart was being examined and analyzed by a team of heart specialists.
His chest pain had, initially, seemed like nothing to worry about. He’d pulled a muscle, he reasoned. Perhaps he was getting the flu. Maybe the restaurant meal he’d indulged in was giving him heartburn.
So we waited. And then, after midnight when he couldn’t lie flat because of the pain, we took him to the Emergency Department at our hospital. They hooked him up to various machines that beeped and burbled. They gave him oxygen to help his breathing. And they told us they believed he was having a heart attack.
It made no sense. He was 46. He didn’t smoke. He exercised. He ate a diet of Omega-rich grassfed meats, whole grains and organic vegetables. His father, however, had his first heart attack at 43. Genetics was not on my husband’s side.
It was a long night, marked by an angiogram and lots of hand-wringing. Ultimately the doctors concluded that he hadn’t, in fact, had a heart attack. It was, they surmised, a case of pericarditis, inflammation in the sac around the heart. Not uncommon and generally benign. But he wasn’t given a completely clean bill of health where his heart was concerned. Though the angiogram revealed no blockage of the arteries, there was sufficient build-up in the smaller arteries to generate some concern. He needed to take a daily low-dose aspirin, get more cardio exercise (hockey three times a week doesn’t cut it) and watch his diet.
He’s understandably spooked. With his father’s health history casting a long shadow, he fears a similar fate. And so he turns to the medical community for answers. I tend toward the natural route. Yoga, meditation, whole foods. I prefer butter over margarine, farm-fresh eggs over separated egg whites in a carton. We each find sources we trust and we follow their advice.
I find myself recalling the words of my grandfather. He refused anything that wasn’t “real food.” He ate out of his own garden. Scoffed at meat that came wrapped in cellophane and sytrofoam. He occasionally smoked a pipe. Sometimes indulged in a glass of Scotch. But he also ingested a daily concoction of brewer’s yeast, cod liver oil and who knows what else. He stood tall and strong until the day he died at 90.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about hearts, and not the cardboard or chocolate kind. The kind that operate as the engine behind our bodies. That work, unappreciated and sometimes abused, day and night, from birth to death. We need to pay attention to them. To take care of them. To recognize when they’re sending signals:
- discomfort in the chest area
- shortness of breath
- discomfort in the neck, shoulder, jaw, arms, back
- sweating or nausea
My husband had signs of a heart attack and the emergency room doctors responded as such. As they later explained, it’s better to over-react to a potential heart attack and be wrong than under-react and be wrong.
At night, I put my ear to my husband’s chest and listen to his heart beat and wonder if, all diet and lifestyle choices aside, I can simply will it to continue beating for a long time to come.