January 2, 2011: the day I didn’t have a heart attack

Yesterday morning at about 6:30 I woke up with pretty bad pain in my chest; left-hand side.  It was so bad that I basically lunged forward to sit up, as almost a reflex -and it got worse. It was then I realized that my chest was so tight and there was so much pain that I really couldn’t move – so I lay back down. Then it dawned on me that my chest was so tight and there was so much pain that  I really couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t take anything other than very short, shallow breaths.  Susan had woken up – and I told her that I thought something was indeed wrong – so she ran next door to get Madame Ribo. (Let me interject this: next time you look for a place to live in a foreign country, you should seriously consider having “next door to a Doctor who retired this summer” as one of your top criterion.)

Madame Ribo ran across the yard, and took my pulse, pressure etc – and said that the ambulance should be called, which she actually did for us.  I was having quite a bit of problems breathing.  Actually, when Susan ran across to get Madame Ribo everything in my periferal vision got blury, then dark, then things closer to the middle of my field of view got blurry – and I realised I was about to pass-out so I tried to just concentrate on my breathing. It was actually hard to concentrate on my breathing when I realised that this could in fact be serious -and I could not stop thinking about our children.  I guess it’s kind of true what they say; about what you really value when you think your life may be in danger. All I could think about is that I would be leaving my children without a father when they are so young. That feeling is about the worst sense of failure, or sorrow, or deep regret that I have ever known.

When the ambulance arrived it came fully stocked with what I gather was a sort of orderly/ambulance driver, a paramedic, and a doctor. They had a mobile EKG so they quickly hooked that up to start to look for – whatever it is they look for with that thing.  Madame Ribo told them that my pressure had been constant, and they checked again, in both arms, ran two tests with the EKG and said that it did not at all appear to be my heart.  At least not a heart attack, they said it could be more ‘mechanical’ than ‘biological’ – meaning perhaps an air bubble or even a piece of cartilage was dislodged or putting pressure on my heart.  They also took blood samples etc so tests could be run as soon as we got to the hospital.  They then gave the OK to hit me with some morphine (I guess they didn’t want to until they knew what was going on with my heart). They loaded me in the ambulance, and we drove down to Grenoble.

(Susan – following the ambulance – takes time to snap a picture)

At the hospital they ran a battery of tests (more EKG, x-rays, blood work etc.) and deduced that it was some kind of severe muscle issue.  Depending on who said it (and how it gets translated) it was some sort of “strain” “issue” “pull” “popping” etc.

My discharge papers read, literally translated: “Thoracic pain probably of mechanical origin, without grave criteria”  (OK buddy – the next time you can’t breathe and morphine doesn’t numb the pain I’ll make sure I use the phrase “sans critéres de gravité” with you!)

Poster in the waiting area of the hospital.

So in some ways it is very encouraging to be told “there appears to be absolutely nothing wrong with your heart” – but to be completely honest it’s also a bit troubling to be told, “we ran a whole battery of tests, and they were all negative, so it must just be what amounts to a pulled muscle.”  So I am home, with just some pain medication, and instructions to go see our doctor in a few days to make sure that everything is OK.

(these were most of the little EKG-thingy’s)

Also you realize, especially when living in a country that is not so familiar to you, how much you need and value the kindness of friends and strangers.  From John & Anna running up to get our kids (actually beating the ambulance to our place!) and taking care of them for the day, to Cindy…who was by Susan’s side the entire day, to our neighbour who was actually calling the hospital and using her status as a doctor to get updates when Susan was unable to.  I am also incredibly thankful for living in a country where they commit massive amounts of resources to health-care, a place that believes that using the collective wealth of the nation for protecting and sustaining life is as important as also using those same resources for things such as education, roads and national defense.

I suppose it’s true that there is something about what appears to be a possible life-threatening situation to give a clearer, more accurate sense of life.  To be honest, there was just that one moment when Susan ran to get Madame Ribo that I honestly thought that it was very serious.  I guess things like that give clarity of mind, and clarity of purpose. In some ways I suppose it wouldn’t be all that bad if each day we were awakened by a potentially life-threatening event.  I imagine that we would re-prioritize each day.  More time spent speaking and listening to people we really care about, less time reading about people we don’t even know. More time actually doing things on this earth we feel are meaningful, less time figuring out how to balance our desire to climb socio-economically, without appearing to look like we’re trying to.

I guess in the end, that’s the true irony of it all.  That we all do have potentially life-threatening events every day. There is no guarantee that I will live to see this weekend, or that you will even finish reading this.  Let’s face it, driving on the roads around our place in the winter, with a little black-ice, a blind turn, and someone racing up to get in a good day of skiing could easily end my life.  I don’t think that’s a particularly morbid thought, I think it’s just realistic. In fact, for those of us who believe in a hope for life after this life, I suppose it’s actually rather optimistic.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolution type proclamations, but I do hope this event will help orient this coming year to be one that is more full of things that actually count, that actually have meaning, that really help others; things that I will be able to look back on if there’s a next time that I’m in the back of an ambulance and be able to say with confidence the words that Paul, the first century follower of Jesus said when he thought he was facing the end of his earthly life:  “I have fought the good fight. I have completed the race. I have kept the faith.“