Who are you ? Name, current age, where are you from ?
Con Birchall, 52, Ontario Canada
How old were you when you experienced your heart attack?
Big one at 45 but was misdiagnosed again another big one at 47.
Where were you when it happened? Tell me your story.
I went to my family Dr in 2006 complaining of “chest pain”. It was always at rest when this would come on and never with activity. It would gradually ease if I moved around. I was sent for an echocardiogram and a stress test of which both showed unremarkable, plus I was only 43 yrs old not exactly high risk! Because it was chest pain at rest relieved by activity I was diagnosed with GERD and given Nexium. That never sat right with me because it occurred so randomly, not after I ate a particular food etc. The chest pain continued and progressively over the years worsened. Every time I was in to see my GP I mentioned the increasing “chest pain” which still occurred randomly only at rest. I would wake at night with it, when sitting quietly at my desk, or watching t.v. I was working part time in nursing and as a full time dog walker and never once did I have it while walking my 6 hrs a day.
In 2008 I woke up in the middle of the night with horrible chest pain. Did my normal routine of taking an extra Nexium, Tums, Maalox, Gas-X…essentially anything I could get my hands on. The pain was crushing, radiating down my left arm, up into my jaw and mid back, I was sweating and felt like I was going to pass out. I was walking circles in the living room until it gradually passed. Wow that was a bad “stomach episode” I thought and set up another appointment with my GP. Again I was given reassurance it was not my heart…”angina occurs with activity and is not relieved by it”.
The chest pain incidents continued.
December 14, 2010 as I was getting ready for work I had another “stomach episode” that was particularly bad. I did the usual routine and tried to suck it up. We were in the midst of a bad snowstorm. I went out and shovelled our 10 x 20 dog pen which helped ease the pain. Within minutes of stopping it was back. I told my husband my “stomach thing” was quite bad that morning and he commented I should stay home (we worked in the same office) I told him I would go in but he had to drive. Within 5 minutes of leaving the house I started feeling very lightheaded and nervous so I told my husband to pull over and call 911 as I was pretty sure something bad was happening. I then lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness my entire body was pins and needles. I looked down at my hands and they were yellowish and waxy looking. I had been a nurse for 16 yrs and the only time I had seen skin that color was when someone died. My husband pulled off the highway and we saw the ambulance coming. They asked me a few questions and then asked me to walk to the ambulance as the snow was too deep. They hooked me up to the ECG and looked pretty nervous.
Unfortunately EMT’s come in different levels. Mine could only give me an aspirin, no I.V. no nitro…just an aspirin. I was brought to the closest hospital which unfortunately was in the opposite direction of the nearest cardiac hospital. The emerg dr explained I was having a “very serious heart attack” and things were going to happen very quickly. I was hooked up to an IV and the emerg dr kept asking me what my pain level was at. It never change despite everything he did. After a few minutes he said he had only one final option which was a clot buster. He said he needed a verbal consent from me because I had a 30% chance of having a stroke after getting it. I said wow that’s not great. He said “If you don’t get it, you are going to die” Well 70% is good enough for me I said! But it did nothing, the pain was terrible still. Then the strangest thing happened, he started walking around my gurney mumbling “This is bad, this is really really bad”. I remember thinking well that’s really unprofessional lol. I grabbed his arm on the next lap and tried to reassure him. I said to him “It’s okay…I am going to be okay” He looked at me and said quietly “No…no I am sorry…you are not going to be okay, you have no idea how bad this is” That was the first time I realized how bad it was. A decision was made to transport me to the closest cardiac hospital which in good weather is just over an hour away. The emerg dr and a nurse came with me in the ambulance with me. He told the nurse to just keep giving me boluses of morphine.
Because of the storm it took much longer to get there. Every so often he would ask me how I was. I told him each time I was the same. At one point he reached over and held my hands and said he couldn’t believe how stoic I was. I remember thinking hmmm…never remember being called stoic before lol. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the cardiac hospital finally a stent was put into my LAD in which I had a 99% blockage. During that procedure it was then determined that I had substantial scar tissue from previous heart attacks…I was only 47 yrs old. I was told later that I had the highest troponin levels they had seen. At least 50% of my heart has been damaged.
After my massive heart attack, I was sent home 4 days later unable to walk up more than 4 step without becoming very short of breath. I was told by my internist (no cardiologist in my small town) to return to work after 4 weeks. It was awful 🙁 I was so tired and so short of breath and no one was offering up answers! 4 months later I got the call to start rehab at which point I was told I was a grade 3 heart failure so should only do very limited things and that perhaps a few months after I finished my rehab I might be able to return to work!! Ha! What a joke! I had already been back to work for 3 months. My EF was at 30% initially after my heart attack. 9 months later it still sat at 30% so the decision was made to implant an ICD to lessen the risk of sudden death due to low EF.
What were your signs and symptoms? Did you have any pre existing conditions or family history ?
I had started having chest pain when I was about 40. It was like a wave that I could feel rising from my mid abdomen up to in my mid chest. It was like someone was squeezing my heart slowly. It was always at rest….never once did I have pain while doing anything strenuous, quite often I would be woken from a dead sleep with it. The pain would intensify then climb up to my jaw and down my left arm. I would become very short of breath during this time. Unfortunately it was alleviated by walking. I say unfortunately because that’s the reason it was misdiagnosed for years. Just before my heart attack (say the week before) I was extremely tired. So tired I was worried about being able to get my last minute Christmas things done.
As for pre existing issues, I had been diagnosed with very high cholesterol at 43. I was put on Crestor at that time and this did bring my levels into acceptable limits. I was also a pack a day smoker, at the time of my heart attack for 34 yrs.
Family history-My father had a 5 way bypass at age 60 after suffering a heart attack. My maternal grandmother had bypass surgery twice having suffered heart attacks from the age of about 50. My paternal grandmother had a stroke in her early 40’s followed by years of devastating heart attacks and strokes.
How did this affect your life? Physically/ Personally?
Well physically because of the damage I sustained it’s meant I can’t physically do what I could do prior. I get sob quickly and tired much faster. My last angiogram showed my heart was starting to enlarge and the walls were starting to get thicker again due to the damage I sustained to my left ventricle.
Personally I have always had a good outlook on life. I am so grateful to be alive and I view everyday as a blessing. I stopped working 3 1/2 yrs after my ha because besides being stressful and demanding I was struggling to get done what I needed to get done. The problem was not having a desk job, it was the fact life goes on regardless of how you are feeling. I would be so tired and after working 40 hrs a week, my chicken coops still needed cleaning, groceries needed to be bought, clothes needed to be washed etc. Working and being able to function doing everyday things was impossible.
What lifestyle changes have you made ? What are your struggles ?
I am physically more active now than when I was working after my ha. I can pace myself and not feel the pressure of having to do certain things at certain times. I quit smoking the day of my ha (5+ yrs smoke free!) I really watch my salt intake because of my CHF related to the damage. I travel more because you never know when your time is up!
My struggles are still asking for help instead of trying to be superwoman. I get shit often from my family because I am too stubborn at times and will do things myself that I shouldn’t do instead of asking for help. I miss being able to do things with my grandkids because I get tired so easily.
Stents/ Zipper or Defib ? What is your situation?
1 stent in my LAD, several other smaller blockages that are 30-40% which they monitor. Yes I have an ICD due to low EF
What do you fear now ?
Being alone and having another heart attack, being unable to get help.
What are three things that are most important in your post heart attack life?
- Surround yourself with positive people. Don’t waste time on negative people, realizing you can’t fix stupid 🙂
- Get a bucket list going, if anything this should show you never know if you will have tomorrow you need to do things, see things and not think you have next week or next year to do them.
- Educate others! Heart attacks aren’t just for old people or men. There is no age or sex that this happens to exclusively.
Did you do Cardiac Rehab? What has been the hardest part of your recovery ?
Yes 4 months after my Heart Attack and 5 yrs later I am actually doing it again right now.
The hardest part was the crappy aftercare. They send you home and you have no idea what to expect. When I first came home I struggled so much. I had to sit down on my stairs 3 times to catch my breath just to get up them to bed. No one tells you it will get better!
What are your new dreams ?
I actually am very happy with my life. Just to not have my heart function decline too quickly.
What do you wish you could do now that you never tried before but so wish you could? Eg: Skydiving.
Machu Picchu. My husband and I always said we would go. I can’t go now because of my heart failure. I can’t do the altitude 🙁
Who was there for you?
My husband has been amazing, and basically everyone in my life has been there for me.
Did you lose many friends after your heart attack ?
I lost none but that might be because I’ve always had a positive attitude. Too many folks feel bad for themselves after. I am responsible for my own life, I don’t blame anyone for what happened…shit happens lol…move on!
What is the funniest thing someone has said or asked about your heart attack?
“I guess after all this time your heart is fixed now right? Like its normal again?” ummm….no my heart was damaged it will never be normal again “You must be so relieved to have an ICD because now you never have to worry about having another heart attack” Well actually the ICD fixes electrical problems…a heart attack is a plumbing problem, my ICD is not going to stop me from having a heart attack…but hey if my heart stops I’ll get a kick start!
Have you had any detractors or people who have been hard on you?
Nope…that’s those negative people I don’t allow into my life thing 🙂
If you could go back in the past how would you live your life differently?
Well I would follow my gut and insist there was a heart issue and not just listen to Drs telling me it was a stomach issue. I would have never smoked that first cigarette.
What do you want more of in life ?
Honestly I like my life right now! Wait….grandkids…could use a few more 🙂
Is this the hardest thing you have ever experienced ?
Accepting my life was going to forever be different after Dec 14 2010.
What makes you great ?
I have a positive attitude! I genuinely like myself 🙂
What advice would you give to a healthy person who has never experienced something like a Heart Attack?
If you feel something is wrong with your heart push the issue! Don’t assume because you don’t smoke, you eat well, you exercise you are bulletproof…no one is bulletproof!