As told by Jacqueline Frober
I felt the first real symptoms on Christmas Day. I was walking our family dog uphill through the neighborhood when I felt a strange tightness in my chest. “That’s weird,” I thought. I noticed I was out of breath a bit too.
By the time I got home the distress was over and my breathing was normal, but I told my husband the episode wasn’t quite right. My family has heart problems—my father had three heart attacks before dying from a fourth at the age of 62. However, I wasn’t too worried. I had a stress test the previous year and everything was normal. I was also on blood pressure and cholesterol lowering medication.
However, my husband and I agreed that I would make an appointment with my health care provider (HCP) after the holidays. probably. when i had time.
Over the next few days, I noticed tightness in my chest during routine tasks like walking up stairs or going up a slight incline. My daughter was 12 years old at the time and pneumonia was raging in her school. Maybe she caught something at one of her many school events?
I also worked as the entertainment editor for USA Weekend magazine, so I was always on the go — but I definitely didn’t want to make anyone sick. When I told the HCP my symptoms, she turned off the middle speaker and looked me straight in the eye. “I don’t like this, Lori,” she said. “Let’s schedule the stress test now.”
I reluctantly arrived at the facility for a stress test the next day. I was on the treadmill for barely two minutes before a cardiologist assistant scheduled me for an angiogram—a check to see blood flow through the heart. Something was wrong. It wasn’t pneumonia.
The next morning, I had the examination at a nearby hospital, and the cardiologist I had met the day before came into the room to inform me that I had blockages in all four major arteries of the heart. He said that to restore blood flow, I would need a coronary artery bypass operation immediately. And let’s just say his style in bed needs work.
I was surprised. I said, “This is absurd.” I told him I was a reporter by trade and wouldn’t have open heart surgery just because he said so. I wanted a second opinion. He abruptly left the room and returned with a colleague who—despite his cozier bed manner—said the same thing: I should schedule my surgery as soon as possible.
I went home without making an appointment for surgery. Looking back, I was definitely in shock. How was I going to make such a huge decision right away? I needed to talk to my husband. I knew what was at stake given my family history, but I also knew that bypass surgery is no joke: In order to create a new path for blood flow around blocked arteries, the surgeon must make a long incision below the chest and open the rib cage over the heart. I was only 48 years old. This can’t be my only option.
By the time I was home, the cardiologist had left me a message about scheduling the surgery. I sent the test results to my cousin who is medical and talked about the procedure with my husband. We decided to wait and see what my cousin recommended before we moved on.
The next morning, the cardiologist called again. Then again. When he called for the third time, I picked up the phone: “Why do you keep calling me?”
He said, “Because you’re going to have a heart attack if you don’t have this surgery.”
I sighed. I knew in my heart (pun intended) that he was right. I said “fine”. “But I want to see the surgeon before the procedure.”
He sneered on the other end of the phone — many patients don’t actually see their surgeon before the day of the operation — but he arranged the meeting. The surgeon was a woman – her name was Mercedes – and I immediately felt relieved that my heart was in her hands. At the time of the surgery, research on cardiac procedures for women was not where it is now. I did not personally know any woman who had heart surgery. I have a co-worker who said he waited six weeks before returning to work. I took 12 weeks off work just to be on the safe side, and had barely recovered by then. For months, my chest had been hurting and I longed to do simple things like carry a bag of groceries out of the car.
Because the seven-hour surgery was performed without infusion, meaning my heart didn’t use a heart-lung machine during the procedure, the risk of memory problems or other neurological problems was limited. When I recovered, I sometimes felt like I was literally in the clouds and my memory was spotty. It took an entire year—until the next holiday season—to feel fully present and like myself again. But looking back, that year was just a blip in my wonderful life. Today, 21 years later, my scans show no signs of blockage and I am so grateful for the persistence of the medical staff in charge of the operation. It is easy to ignore the symptoms, but it is very important to listen to your heart.
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Our real stories, real stories are the authentic experiences of real life women. The views, opinions, and experiences shared in these stories are not endorsed by HealthyWomen and do not necessarily reflect HealthyWomen’s official policy or position.
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