Finding the upside–and humor–in a health scareAugust 7, 2017
A recent health scare has reaffirmed two truths for me. First, the universe has a really twisted sense of humor. Second, you can almost always find something to laugh about, even when things seem pretty freakin’ bleak. To wit:
In my last blog post, I ruminated about aging, writing and memory, concluding that because I’m painfully aware of who the president of the United States is (since I know the answer to this standard question that’s part of assessing someone’s cognitive status), my brain must be doing okay.
Well, just a few days after that post went live, I lost my short-term memory for about 10 hours. I had an episode of what’s called transient global amnesia (TGA)—the second time this has happened to me in 12 years (I wrote about my first TGA experience here). Here’s what happened this time:
I’d driven to my cardiologist’s office for an early-morning nuclear stress test to check out why I’d recently been having more frequent episodes of chest discomfort on exertion.
Based on symptoms and family history, I was initially diagnosed with angina in 2009, but a heart catheterization six months post-diagnosis showed that my major coronary arteries were in good shape. The assumption was that I had what’s called small-vessel, or microvascular, disease—a not-uncommon diagnosis in post-menopausal women whose main arteries are okay but who still experience chest pain. I researched it at the time, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of concern about the condition. Some articles I read even called it “benign.” To manage it, I began taking a statin, eating a more heart-healthy diet, and aimed to do cardio exercise three to six times a week.
So when I started having more frequent symptoms, my cardiologist agreed it was time for another stress test. On the appointed day, I drove myself to his office, checked in—and don’t remember what happened for the rest of the day.
Apparently, I completed the first part of the test with no problem, texting Hubs, “So far, so good.” At some point, however, the folks overseeing the test didn’t like what the EKG was saying, so they halted the test and sent me to the hospital in an ambulance.
Hubs says I called him to let him know what was happening, and I sounded lucid. But sometime between then and arriving at the ER, my short-term memory took a hike. By the time I reached the ER, I wasn’t making sense. I was confused about where I was, and why (I thought I’d had a heart attack). I had no recollection of being at my cardiologist’s office and thought I’d been transported by ambulance from home. And I kept asking the same questions over and over—because I couldn’t retain any new information.
I was rushed in for a CT to rule out stroke—about the time that Hubs arrived at the hospital—and examined by a neurologist who conducted a battery of neurological tests.
I recognized Hubs, no problem. I could recite my Social Security number. But when the neurologist asked me who the president of the United States was—that standard question to evaluate cognitive function—I drew a blank.
The neurologist confirmed that I was, indeed, having another episode of TGA, probably brought on by the sudden stress of thinking I was having a heart attack (which I wasn’t, thankfully). After he left and I was waiting to be admitted (the doctors still had to figure out what was going on with my heart), Hubs relates that he and I had a conversation that went like this:
Hubs: You really don’t know who the president is?
Hubs: He’s got funny-looking hair.
Me: [Blank look]
Hubs: He’s got the same first name as mine.
Me: I still can’t think of it.
Hubs: It’s Donald Trump.
Me: Are you shitting me?
And because my short-term memory couldn’t retain this information, Hubs would ask me the question every few minutes, and I’d “learn” all over again that DJT was president—with the same disgusted response. I was having my very own “Groundhog Day” experience.
Thankfully, my short-term memory began returning by that evening—and I no longer had to repeatedly relive the horror of discovering who #45 was. The downside was that I was again painfully aware of who inhabited the Oval Office.
I was scheduled for a cardiac catheterization the next morning, which revealed that my major coronary arteries were still fine. In fact, my cardiologist said they looked better than they had eight years ago, and I could go home. That was the good news. Oh, and as a bonus, I got a free shave of my bikini area as part of the cath prep—even though they ended up doing the procedure through my wrist, not my groin.
Once again, however, the assumption was that I had microvascular disease (MVD). This time, my cardiologist wanted me to have a PET scan to confirm the diagnosis. Once again, I started doing research—discovering that more current medical knowledge says this condition really isn’t so benign. It’s difficult to manage, there’s no ideal defined treatment, and the prognosis isn’t so great.
Damn. Not only is DJT president, but I’m going to die way sooner than I thought, and my quality of life is going to suck.
After a surreal, emotional week of pondering my mortality and how I want to spend the time I have left on earth, I undergo the PET scan.
The results? No microvascular disease! The number that’s used to measure blood flow to the heart is, in my case, solidly in the normal range. In the words of my cardiologist, “Prognostically speaking, this is excellent news.”
The sense of relief I felt was—and continues to be—HUGE (sorry). Yes, there are still questions about what causes my symptoms, but the answer does not appear to be cardiovascular disease. Whew.
I feel as if I have dodged a bullet. And I am extraordinarily grateful—to be here, to know the love and concern of family and friends, to have the opportunity to look anew at life and how I want to live it, and for the gift of laughter.
I’m even grateful for this entire medical crisis. It was scary as hell, but I wound up with a clean bill of heart health. And I got to forget who was president for a while.
I’d love to have your comments! While you’re thinking about it, here’s this week’s haiku. It’s reprised from an earlier blog about memory—and seems particularly apt in the wake of my “brain cramp:”
How can I recall
something sixty years ago
but not last night’s meal?
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