BUT CARDIAC CAUSES MUST BE RULED OUT FIRST – THEY CAN BE FATAL
Your brain, the precious thing that makes you, YOU, cannot function without oxygen for more than a tiny number of minutes. After which, if it doesn’t get that oxygen, you are no longer YOU, even if you survive.
Get that through your head.
Before you read what follows. And remember it.
The Perfect Storm
I’ve hesitated to write this post all week because ‘The Perfect Storm’ is never apparent except in hindsight. And I’ve been feeling like crap.
As a result of the CFS I live with, you can consider me immuno-compromised all the time. Sometimes it helps to have my immune system cranked up all the time – I fight off many things with a shorter period of malaise than many people. But when it gets overwhelmed, it REALLY gets overwhelmed.
I had been coughing, as a result of first one virus, and then, probably another (probably caught from husband who thought he had caught it from me – and didn’t take precautions – and probably gave already-weakened me the horrible virus he picked up somewhere else), since around Nov. 1, 2016. Sometimes very violent coughing. Painful coughing. But not chest pain. Remember that. Not chest pain.
And yes, I had seen at least four doctors (including mine twice), had a chest X-ray, antibiotics, steroids, and an inhaler of albuterol. My lungs had been listened to carefully, and pronounced good, then diagnosed as bronchitis, then diagnosed as ‘tight’ (whatever that means).
I had the feeling that if I could just STOP COUGHING for a while, everything could get better. I really hope so – I’ve now managed to not cough for two days.
More scary symptoms added – caused by cough? Or revealed by cough?
Older white female, heavy, sick a long time, not very mobile, is not a good place to start anything from.
This is where things get a bit fuzzy. I don’t know when the extra shortness of breath started – because I didn’t record it. I just took my time climbing up the 33 steps from the crypt of the Princeton U. Chapel where I sing on Sundays with a tiny Catholic choir. Was it just the CFS lack of energy? Or was it something new? And was it a result of the coughing, or something made worse by the coughing? I honestly don’t know.
But shortness of breath is a symptom that shouldn’t be ignored if it gets worse. Nor should the tightness in the chest that went with it. If you wonder how I managed singing with the cough going on, it wasn’t continuous, I took over-the-counter meds to control it (paying for their help with the extra fuzziness that hits my brain as my body clears out the meds), and I really like to sing, and there was, accidentally, a long hiatus between the last time we sang in December (the 17th) and the first time I made it in February (the 5th). Vacation, the choir director canceling because he thought there wouldn’t be many people there, and a couple times I was too sick to go and didn’t want to cough on my choirmates. So, a big gap – during which I coughed a lot.
So I sang last Sunday. And noticed things were not good in the pain department, so I took the steps extra slowly.
And then, that night, the first trigger?
Triggers for chest pain
Are not always obvious. In retrospect only, the chest pain flare – significant and scary – Sunday evening was set off by me having a chocolate protein shake. Silly, right? I had had eggs for breakfast, so I decided to have my usual shake at night. I make it with lots of ice, and it’s very close to a milkshake (okay, for someone who doesn’t eat carbs if possible), cold and frosty and tasty.
And sometime shortly after I finished it, a wave of chest pain that stopped me short, raised my blood pressure, and scared the heck out of me – but slowly resolved, leaving me shaking and wondering whether I should be doing something. But you know what Sunday night after the Superbowl must be like at the ER, and if you’re not absolutely sure you should be going to the ER – after all, the pain resolved, right? – you pretend it wasn’t so bad and go to bed. Just to be sure, I took my blood pressure, which was high but came down slowly to almost normal.
That’s the place at which many fatalities happen, and yes, I’m perfectly aware of that.
The next morning I called the cardiologist’s office, and moved my appointment from Feb. 23rd to last Wednesday because they had an opening. The cardiologist was my primary’s idea BECAUSE SHE THOUGHT SHE HEARD A MURMUR – almost a year ago – and I had finally gone to see her, had had the recommended echocardiogram and ultrasound of the carotids, and had that appointment on the 23rd to get the results (which turned out not to be significant, or they would have made me come in). I was being reasonable.
The cardiologist’s nurse whom I was talking to – and had told about the spasms which resolved – concluded with, “If you have any significant symptoms, head to the ER.”
I hung up after those words.
On the cusp here.
Except that, while I was talking to her, I was having my morning protein shake – same as usual, full of ice, I was still coughing, and I drank it at normal speed, not really paying attention.
And in all this remember that I’m operating at much reduced brain speed – because of that infernal and exhausting coughing that just won’t go away completely. I haven’t, at this point, written fiction in weeks – because that requires that all the indicators align perfectly, and I haven’t had that in weeks. We CFS types call it brain fog.
And then it happened: decision time
An unbelievable wave of pain hits me in the chest.
Husband frantically puts on clothes, intending to drive me to the local hospital (in retrospect, I should have let him – they did nothing IN the ambulance), but I lie down on the living room floor when faced with the prospect of walking all the way out to the car, and make him call 911.
I’m coherent enough to walk him through FINDING a non-enteric-coated full size aspirin tablet (he had brough me four of the baby coated ones, and I though they might take too long to dissolve), as the dispatcher said to take. The people who make it first are the firemen – I guess they had nothing to do. They can’t do anything, and they don’t transport, but there they were. To be with us (I suppose they have CPR training) until the EMTs get there. To help me down the seven steps to the front hall (at which point they let me walk myself to the downstairs bathroom just fine – should have taken that as a sign).
The EMTs get there, transport to hospital – without doing a thing IN the ambulance except, as we practically pulled up to the hospital, rolling out the oxygen tubing you see on TV going into the nostrils – which was then on my head for less than 3 minutes. Revenue enhancement? The things you think about!
The chest hurts a lot, but it is, like Sunday night, slowly resolving. The BP has been high, but is coming down. I am trying hard to calm my breathing and heart beat.
At this point you are as committed as if you jumped out of a plane
NOBODY in this whole system can send you home now (and you’re still terrified anyway – chest pain really hurts).
Every bit of exertion IN the hospital sets off the waves to some extent. I duly report this.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the day, the admission to the hospital, the doctor from the cardiologist’s other office who tells me my symptoms are indicative of 90-95% blockage somewhere. And scares the hell out of me. And orders drugs which I later, when they are offered in the hospital that night, I decide can’t possibly help in one day, and I refuse to take drugs without discussing them thoroughly with MY cardiologist and bringing up the whole CFS thing (this was the statin; I think I took the aspirin).
By the way, if it had been cardiac, taking the statin right away is important (said MY cardiologist, but I still don’t see how – she said it prevents even more damage to the heart – must look that up).
And the train wreck continues (as well as the pain, enhanced by fear)
You can probably see where this is headed, but, after a totally miserable night on a hospital bed after being in an even worse, if possible, ER bed all day, with all other indignities not being related here, they haul me off by ambulance the next morning to the cath lab at St. Mary’s in another state (PA), and finally, after a circus of paperwork and other activity, actually go in and LOOK at the state of my arteries, etc., with the view to saving my life by stenting those presumed 95% blockages.
Only to find nothing major (though there are the beginnings of plaque they don’t like), and SEND ME HOME. No stents. No hospital stay. NO prescriptions.
With no one caring about the, you know, actual CHEST PAIN.
Which is the same theme when we see the cardiologist the next day, who now wants to treat me as if I’d come in for cardiac reasons (instead of the benign Level 1 heart murmur which tests show is accompanied by minor calcification) – and start me on meds: no, nothing important wrong, but you really should start taking these heavy-duty drugs which are known to cause significant muscle pain, especially in the CFS population, and memory problems in many (c’mon now – I have TWO brain cells left, and can’t afford to lose them).
No, the drugs don’t lower cholesterol.
No, the drugs don’t REVERSE plaque buildup. Nothing, apparently, nothing chemical can do that.
No discussion of alternate methods of lowering cholesterol (like diet, my only real option as exercise isn’t possible – can’t go aerobic because the body can’t produce energy aerobically).
The end? The summary? The conclusions?
- If your chest hurts enough, or worries you enough, you HAVE TO GO TO THE ER. Period. You don’t belong at your doctor’s office, or even at urgent care – they don’t have the facilities should it be, you know, a heart attack. Only a hospital does. I did everything right. At the ER they take blood three times, 8 hours apart or so, and they look for certain cardiac enzymes to be present, to indicate you may have had a heart attack. But this takes a while. Meanwhile, they treat you as if. They have to.
- It may NOT be cardiac. Some 23% of chest pain is NOT cardiac OR pulmonary. It might be esophageal spasms, or intercostal muscle spasms (the intercostal muscles between your ribs pull air in and push it out, and they were already in revolt from the coughing. Probably). The pulmonary pain can be separated out a bit, but may not keep you from a full cario workup. I don’t know about that one. The pain/spasms could be chronic or acute, or getting there – you won’t know until analyzing all the evidence later.
- I ended up getting a heart catheterization, the gold standard for actually LOOKING, which might have taken a lot longer otherwise – but might also have never been done, especially if the pain resolved soon enough AFTER THE COUGHING stopped. So I have the baseline I, as a PWC (person with CFS) would not be able to get with a treadmill stress test (testing to exhaustion has horrible effects on PWCs; I won’t do it) or chemical stress test (same effects on PWCs; won’t do that either). But it didn’t have to be the whole ambulance/ER/cath lab emergency experience. IF the chest pain hadn’t stopped, I would probably have had the test eventually.
- If the doctor you see in the ER gives you meds he says you should take, take them. I did with the ER doc’s meds (I think). It was later, in the hospital bed alone all night (they slap a heart monitor on you and then only come if you call) when I decided not to take the meds the over-zealous cardiologist ordered. 50/50 on that one.
- It is possible (maybe) to stop your own coughing – IF it’s on the way out anyway, and you take it very easy, and use the OTC meds (and the cough syrup with codeine I was prescribed at one point in those 3+ months), but it’s a full-time job, and I may only have been fooling myself. By my husband’s symptoms – he who gave me the second virus – I had expected to be done with the coughing by this Wednesday. It happened/I forced it to stop on Thursday by fighting back with every cough attempt. Maybe my yoga breathing helped a bit. I couldn’t do it before, so maybe that’s also completely bogus.
- Don’t get sick. And even if you think someone else’s illness is the same as you have, it is STILL possible to hand it back and forth – so keep up with the precautions, don’t get near other sick people, wash your hands a lot… Everything spouse didn’t do.
- Try not to have overlapping illnesses. It messes up the diagnoses.
- Don’t be stupid – this was a royal pain, a huge expense, and a possibly wasted effort – and it was still the right thing to do.
- You may feel like an idiot when it turns out your heart is fine. I did. But you shouldn’t. They really can’t tell, and you really need to know, and you can’t take that chance. And you are the only one who can decide: What’s happening isn’t right, for me. Unless, of course, you’re passed out on the floor and trusting someone else will make the right call.
- I am SO glad it is over (or getting there).
Share your own happy experiences in the comments. I’ll listen. Might learn something.