I stood outside in my yard, which had been dormant during the winter season and was now awakening to the spring. Yard work was a familiar and enjoyable activity for me, one that I had been doing for years. But as I walked across the yard, I found myself out of breath and fatigued, to the point of needing to see if taking a nap would help. It did not. A nagging pain flowed down my left arm and my upper back, and a sense of impending doom and panic seemed to be playing tricks on me. At age 62, I was experiencing a heart attack.
Thankfully, those around me recognized the symptoms and brought me to my doctor, who confirmed that I had indeed had a heart attack and admitted me to the hospital. Three of my heart’s arteries had blockages of 95 percent or more, so immediate action was necessary. In my mind, this seemed so unreal. I was the person who took care of others, and now I was in a position of feeling helpless and powerless.
The night before my heart catheterization procedure, I lay on my hospital bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to the voices of staff out in the hallway. Unknown faces came in and out during the night, drawing blood and taking my vitals. All I could think of was what if things didn’t go smoothly the next day; what if this was how my life was going to end? I slept fitfully that night, praying to the Lord to bless the cardiologist who was to work on me.
The next morning, I was informed that my procedure was scheduled for early in the day. My family was there to visit, along with my family doctor, all attempting to bolster my spirit. That was going to be a hard sell.
The appointed time came, and I was wheeled into the cath lab. Huge ceiling lights glared down on me as medical staff busily did their assigned tasks, and all sorts of high-tech equipment with flashing lights and beeping sounds were scattered about the room. It became apparent that escape was not an option.
My cardiologist, a very experienced heart specialist, explained the injury that had occurred to my heart and what repairs needed to be made. He said that one of my three blocked arteries, the left anterior descending (the widow maker), had quite a significant blockage at the juncture of it and a sizable diagonal coming off from it. He said it was going to be a bit tricky, but he felt he could repair it with a stent. The alternative, he said, was to undergo open-heart bypass surgery. Lying there, as if time stood still, debating the question, I asked him if he thought he could do the stenting, and he said yes. I knew open-heart surgery would be a much more difficult process for my body, so I told him to go ahead with placing a stent. With luck, prayer, and the cardiologist’s skill, the process began. A thin wire wound its way from my femoral artery up to my heart. Just trying to picture that happening had me in a state of disbelief and fear, with fear having the upper hand. After what seemed to be an eternity, the cardiologist said that the artery now appeared to be cleared, and the stent was doing its job. I let out a long sigh of relief.
Only one of the three arteries was repaired that morning. The cardiologist planned to wait one day to make sure that the initial stent continued to do its job. If not, I might end up in a surgical suite having bypass surgery.
That stent passed the test, and on the third day of hospitalization, I had stents 2 and 3 placed in the remaining blocked arteries. Although there were some bumps in the road, such as an episode of bleeding from the femoral artery site, causing me to spend almost seven days in the hospital before I was discharged, I came home with the support of my family.
However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what happened to my heart could happen again. Every twinge of pain I experienced reinforced that thought. My family doctor recommended I attend cardiac rehab to help me regain my strength and confidence, but at first, I was hesitant. I eventually decided to give it a try, and it turned out to be the best decision I could make. At its conclusion, I felt I could conquer the world. And I kind of did, running eventually 5 and 10-mile races, half marathons, and even a marathon. By the grace of God and the care given by my doctors, along with the love and support of family and friends, I felt unstoppable.
But my health challenges did not end there. In the upcoming years of my life, I underwent a thyroidectomy for suspicious-looking cysts on my thyroid, and also had a very sick gall bladder removed at the same time. A year or so after that, I had a cryoablation procedure to remove a suspicious cyst from my right kidney, and that kidney is still under surveillance. After each of these health events, I felt that the “rug had been pulled out from under me.” However, I knew I had already shown that I could get back what I had lost – my strength and confidence – and I wasn’t going to let these “little blips on the radar” keep me down.
I don’t tell my story to give myself a pat on the back. I want to emphasize that achieving a positive outcome often requires collaboration from multiple sources. Skilled doctors and nurses who gave me their best efforts, the love and support of family and friends, and lastly, the faith I have in the healing power of my Lord. None of us are truly unstoppable, but by digging deep, having faith, and reaching out to those around us, we can all accomplish more than we thought possible. Together, we form an unstoppable force.
Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient advocate.