“Heart failure:” that’s what my doctor said the diagnosis was. To me, the words go with being in one’s last weeks of life. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says
Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. In some cases, the heart can’t fill with enough blood. In other cases, the heart can’t pump blood to the rest of the body with enough force. Some people have both problems.
And, as if correcting my response to the diagnosis, they add
The term “heart failure” doesn’t mean that your heart has stopped or is about to stop working.
However, heart failure is a serious condition that requires medical care.
In September a test showed that I have “mitral valve stenosis.” The valve is stiff and does not allow healthy blood flow into the left ventricle, the heart’s main pump to send oxygenated blood throughout the body. “Mitral valve stenosis” is a mouthful. “Heart failure” is scarey. I told people I had a weak left ventricle.
“Why are you telling people that?” My doctor was upset with me.
“Because ‘heart failure’ sounds much more severe than what I am experiencing now.”
The doctor agreed with my reaction to the term and shared the story of a man much younger than I was, with much more severe heart failure. He was sent to a clinic with a huge sign saying “Heart Failure” above the entrance. He wouldn’t go inside. When asked why, he declared, “I am not a failure!”
Around the same time, a blood pressure check revealed high blood pressure, and I was prescribed medication. It was a “water pill;” that is, a diuretic. The directions recommend taking it early in the morning. It sends me dashing to the bathroom.
Then on Sunday, January 5, I arrived at church later than usual and went directly into the sanctuary rather than chatting with friends. As I entered, I heard the new Senior Minister say, “Oh, there’s Aikya.” I was the solution to a problem I did not yet know.
Could I lead the Wednesday evening service on a particular Wednesday? I heard his question and understood it. Then the meaning disappeared and reappeared like on-again off-again receptive aphasia. I heard the words but the meaning came and went. I felt scared and angry.
From the anger, I replied. My answer was not what I would have said if my mind were clear. I sat down and noticed the confusion in my mind. I sat quietly and listened to the service.
The minister was doing a variety of things following service. He was selling books for a four-session class he was teaching about living a complaint-free life. Also, he was leading a brief visioning activity.
I still felt confused. I asked what was happening at the table. The minister did not seem to understand what I was asking. Maybe when I spoke, I did not make sense. If I stayed quiet for a while, maybe this would pass. I sat down and joined the visioning.
The Drive Home
When visioning ended, I said good-bye to friends, got in my car, and started to drive home. I still felt confused. Something was wrong with me. What could it be? What caused it? I made a wrong turn. I drove around, confused and lost in a part of town I did not know.
I pulled over and set my GPS to guide me home. When that voice began to speak, I followed her direction and arrived home, feeling a little dizzy and weak.
What was wrong with me? The confusion and dizziness had faded, but I was fatigued. I decided to call my health provider’s Advice Nurse, but first, I returned a call from my religious science practitioner. That day I was unable to explain what had happened as well as I did just now. I simply said that I had been a cognitive trainwreck at church that morning.
Call the Important People
My practitioner told me that I had had a T.I.A. (Transient Ischemic Attack or mini-stroke), and I should call the Advice Nurse right away. Her husband had had a T.I.A. similar to mine. Rather than causing paralysis on one side of the face or body, which are more common symptoms, his T.I.A. also made him a cognitive train wreck. He even got lost while he was driving, just as I had.
I called the Advice Nurse and told my story as best I could. A doctor consulting with the Advice Nurse said that, if I was not having symptoms, I did not have to go to the Emergency Room.
The Emergency Room
The next day my roommate Marilyn came with me to see my doctor. My doctor consulted with a neurologist who said I should go the E.R. right away. My roommate took me to the Emergency Room and stayed until I got a bed.
The risk of another T.I.A., or full stroke that leaves permanent damage to the brain, is greatest in the first 24 hours. For that reason, on Sunday, the day before, I should have gone to the Emergency Room right away.
I am very grateful to Marilyn for coming to both the appointment and the Emergency Room. They kept me overnight for observation. I was scared. It felt like a china doll that could easily break. I didn’t ask for a book to read or for my knitting. I just froze.
Walks by the Water of Life
After the 23-day risk period passed, I did more physical activity. It started very slowly. I felt dizzy when I got up and walked. Our neighborhood is hilly, so I drove to an island nearby and walked on a flat straight path by the water. I did that every day. Each day I could walk a little farther and enjoy it. The more I walked, the more alive and light my body felt.
I used to live in my head. Paying attention to my body and making it essential is new. It means getting up, stepping away from the article or poem to take a walk, to cook, or eat a meal. The activities that promote physical health are more important now.
For the past month, I have worn a heart monitor. Having such a gadget attached to my body made me feel vulnerable. At the end, the doctor said it did not show any problems; my heart was normal. My decision is that I am going to be just fine. I am learning to enjoy a heart healthy diet and add more exercise. Years in the future, I’ll be able to say, “Yes, that happened to me too. It was a reminder to take care of myself.”
To read more by Aikya Param, click here.