If you look up the symptoms for a panic attack and a heart attack, they are very similar. In fact, in all my research, I found that many people end up at the hospital when they are having a panic attack because they think they are having a heart attack. This is what is so scary about anxiety. For anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the two.
Up until that Sunday afternoon in July 2014, I had never experienced a panic attack. I have often been a worrier throughout my life, but I had never had anxiety to the point of experiencing physical symptoms. The fact of the matter was that in the months preceding this, I had been under a tremendous amount of stress. We had sold our house—which hadn’t gone as planned—costing us thousands of dollars out of pocket. I already told you the story about Jonah breaking his leg, which added to our financial stress. I had been facing discontentment with my job, wondering if I was truly fulfilling my God-given purpose. And Elly and I had been going through a rough patch in our marriage—having two young kids at home, trying to figure out how to be good parents, but also how to have a good marriage in the midst of all the demands of parenthood. To make matters worse, I’m not a natural communicator. I am an internalizer. It’s not my natural inclination to share my feelings. Instead, I bottle them up and think and think and think about them, which really only compounds the issues.
As my doctor put it, “stress can do a lot of funny things to the body.” (Obviously not funny in the laughable sense.) But just because I was stressed out didn’t mean that there wasn’t something actually wrong with my heart.
At the point when I was waiting for my EKG results, I hadn’t really thought through all of this. I didn’t know what to expect, but I think I expected more of it to be stress-induced. So I was actually surprised to hear the Minor Emergency Clinic doctor tell me,
“Your results have come back abnormal…you have what is called, a ‘right bundle branch blockage’ in your heart.”
He didn’t tell me much about it except to say that it’s an electrical issue with the heart that is not entirely uncommon and that most people who have it don’t even know they have it because most of the time it produces no symptoms. The only other thing he recommended was to follow up with my primary care doctor.
Honestly, despite him telling me it wasn’t a big issue, it didn’t bring me much comfort, because I didn’t know if this electrical issue is what had caused the rapid heartbeat I experienced on the golf course or if it was something else. And it didn’t explain why I had been feeling chest tightness and shortness of breath. I guess the only comforting thing about it was that my heart wasn’t in and didn’t appear to have previously been in distress.
It was Tuesday afternoon before I called my doctor to schedule a follow up appointment. We set it up for Wednesday. When I saw my doctor, again he said that I looked and sounded good, but wanted to try and figure out what was causing my issues. Certainly, if there was a bigger issue with my heart, he didn’t want to overlook it. So he prescribed a few tests. The first was a heart echo (a sonogram of the heart), which he had me get that same day. The next two were scheduled for a couple weeks later—a stress test, where they monitored my heart for any abnormalities while having me walk on a treadmill at a severe incline (in order to get my heart rate up to 160), and the other test was a myocardial perfusion scan, which basically allowed them to see all the blood flow into and out of my heart.
It took about a week to get the results from the heart echo. Thankfully, everything came back normal on that one. That provided a little bit of relief for me, and I even briefly considered cancelling the stress test and the myocardial perfusion scan. But I still had one nagging thought in the back of my head…
“If everything appears to be okay with my heart, what would have caused everything I’ve physically experienced?”
This is perhaps the one thought that kept me from cancelling those additional appointments. To add to it, my dad actually had begun to feel issues with his heart just days before I was supposed to have those other tests, and I ended up staying with him in the hospital for a couple days while they were trying to figure out what was going on with him. It was during that time that I decided for sure to have those other tests done. (And just so you know, they found that he has some heart arrhythmias, but nothing that was life threatening at the moment, thank the Lord!)
It probably goes without saying that none of this really helped my stress levels. It was incredibly difficult during this time to control my fear. In fact, during the time I was awaiting the results from my tests, every night for a week I went to bed not knowing if I was going to wake up the next morning… wondering if I had just put my kids to bed for the last time, if that was the last bed time story, the last bed time prayer, the last bed time hugs and kisses. I quietly cried myself to sleep as these thoughts ran through my head. (It still makes me emotional to think about it even now.) Each of the following mornings when I did awake, my first conscious thought was, “Lord, thank you for giving me another day.” It was literally the first thing on my mind. I had never experienced anything like that before—that depth of despair. The only thing I could think to do in attempt to deal with all those feelings—the only thing that brought me any peace—was to read my Bible and pray.
Let me clear. I know where I’m going after I die. I know that I’ll be with Christ in Heaven. I have declared Him to be my savior and have seen the fruits of His salvation in my life. So the thought of dying doesn’t scare me in the sense that I’m afraid of what will happen to me after I die. And as much as I love my wife, I’m not even so scared about leaving her behind. The thing that scared me the most was the thought of my kids growing up without a dad. I feel such a heavy weight of responsibility as a father that it was difficult for me to bear that thought and it burdened me those nights as I was trying to fall asleep. (More later on how I’ve trained myself to think about this now.)
To get back to what happened with the other tests, I passed the stress test “with flying colors” as the doctor put it. They didn’t hear or see anything abnormal while getting my heart rate up on the treadmill. Those results were immediate. The results from the myocardial perfusion scan, however, would take several days to get back. Basically they injected some radioactive solution into my blood stream and then did a series of special x-rays that allowed them to view the blood flow to and from my heart. These were the results I was most interested to receive. It would take some time for the radiologist to go through all the images, but theoretically, if there were any blockages or anything like that, this test would show it. I don’t think I really expected any issues since the heart echo and stress tests had yielded positive results. But I still had that little bit of fear that they would find something out of the ordinary.
The call came about a week later.
It was my first day back to work from summer break and I was in the middle of a meeting when my phone rang. I saw that it was my doctor’s office and tried to get out of the room in time to answer the call, but I just missed it. A few moments later I got a voicemail notification and eagerly listened to the message. Just as I had thought, my doctor’s nurse was calling to say they had received the results from the myocardial perfusion scan. It wasn’t that my results were horrible, but it was the ambiguous way she worded it that ultimately caused me more worry than relief.
“We’ve received your test results back… they are slightly positive…”
I immediately called back to try to get more information. “Slightly positive?” What the heck does that mean?
Unfortunately, she didn’t have any answers for me.
“I’m sorry, but the doctor is out of the office for the next three days and we’re not allowed to interpret test results for you.”
So even though I had received the results, I didn’t know what they meant and there wasn’t anyone who could tell me what they meant in the immediate future. As it turned out, it would be weeks before I would have any answers. And in the meantime, the physical symptoms seemed to be getting worse…
To Be Continued…