A Caution to Women Over 50: Our Symptoms are Different

I know there is a lot going on in the world right now, but today’s post will be somewhat brief because I just got out of the hospital last week.  What follows is a health update, but it is also advice for all women over 50, just to keep in the back of your minds.

Tuesday, June 29, I went for a doctor’s appointment so he could schedule an operation to remove my gallbladder.  He looked at the ultrasound and told me he would take it out next week.  Hooray!!

When I got home, I began to feel worse than usual.  I felt as if I had swallowed a bunch of acid of some kind.  Antacids didn’t help, as I couldn’t keep them down.  I couldn’t keep water or anything else down – and those of you with acid indigestion know how awful that feels when your stomach is intent on expelling copious amounts of bile.

And so it went on this way all day and all night on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday at about 11 AM I decided maybe I should call the doctor.  I was sweating and could not stop vomiting (I know, it’s gross, but I promise you I have a good reason to be specific about the symptoms).  I didn’t have any pain, but I did have a slight fever.  I figured it was just a gallbladder attack from hell.

I called my primary care physician – Dr. Wonderful.  I spoke with his nurse (that was disappointing) and she told me to call the gallbladder surgeon to ask what I should do.

So I called Dr. Kaneshiki, the excellent surgeon (I am providing his name as he is highly thought of, and if you ever need a surgeon in Pennsylvania…), and his nurse told me to go to the ER.

I texted Nancy Downstairs and woke her up, and told her I was calling an ambulance.  She said she’d drive me so 10 minutes later we were on our way to the ER at UPMC Altoona.

Thankfully, there were no other patients and they took me back and hooked me up to an EKG, took temp, bp, etc.

Tech: Um, do you normally have a fast heart rate?

I told him I didn’t and they then whisked me off to some room where a nurse was again attaching a heart monitor to me and yelling (yes she was, I am not exaggerating) “Quit moving, you’re messing up the machine”.

I wasn’t squirming or anything but it’s hard to be still when you’re sick to your stomach like that.

I said, “Maybe the lines are all over the place because it’s a heart problem?”

The nurse glared at me.  Touchy!

The ER doctor came in, barking orders at Mean Nurse for meds and such, and he put some pasty stuff on my chest.  He kept asking if I was in pain (I wasn’t).

Doctor:  Really? No pain anywhere?

Me: No.  What’s all this fuss about for a gallbladder?

Doctor: Gallbladder?  You’ve had a minor heart attack.  That’s why we drew all that blood, to look for the enzymes that indicate that.

Me: That’s going to screw up my surgery next week, I bet!

I was quite surprised.

Aside #1: Like most people, I had read things about how women’s symptoms for heart attack are different but I really didn’t internalize that information, I guess, because when I think of “heart attack”, I think of someone turning red in the face, gasping for air, and clutching his chest while stating that his arm and/or neck hurts.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall reading that women’s symptoms were different, but I guess maybe I didn’t pay attention.

The cardiologist came in and told me he had to do a heart catheterization on me, to see which (if any) of my arteries were blocked.  Coincidentally, he is also Nancy Downstairs’ cardiologist, so she came down to the waiting room for the cath lab to find out what was going on.

Aside #2: It really helps to have someone do that, as often they will recall things the doctor said that the patient, in her distress, won’t remember.  Our hospitals need patient advocates so that every patient can have someone in that position to assist them.  The only place I know of that has patient advocates is Minneapolis.

I was awake for the heart catheterization, which really hurts a lot.  What they do is run a catheter up the artery in your arm (or groin…fortunately he used my arm) all the way up to your heart.  They are looking to see if there are blockages or anything abnormal.

But of course me being a baby about things like that, I am just repeating “OwOwOwOw” sort of like a mantra, while the cardiologist is telling me, “But look!  You have perfectly clear arteries! That’s really good!”

Aside #3: It wasn’t my finest hour, but at least I didn’t cry or yell or get hysterical.  I did sneak a peek at my arteries and I have to admit, they did look pretty cool.  Must be all those years as a vegetarian. And now I can scratch off “wonder about the plaque in my arteries” on my list of “things I wonder about the older I get”.

Then they took me to some MRI machine, injected some dye, and looked at my neck arteries. That wasn’t too bad except in the beginning, when the tech kept getting the placement wrong, and would move me so far into the machine that it went over my head…which I alerted her to in a voice just slightly shy of full panic mode:

“No no no too far in no it’s over my head no no move it back you’re not MRI-ing my brain you know, I am going to get off this table if you don’t move back!”  Or words to that effect.

Aside #4: I was locked in closets as a child as punishment (yes, really), and have been claustrophobic ever since. No dosage of benzodiazepines works for me when I am approaching full panic mode in that situation, nor do the headphones that some places provide in an attempt to drown out the banging the machines do – they never have Tool or Alice in Chains anyway, which actually might help if I could sing along.

Apparently that test had ok results, too, because I never heard about it again.

I spent 2 nights in the hospital, under observation, and was told at discharge on Friday that I was cleared by the cardiologist for gallbladder surgery the following Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the surgery went as planned and I am now minus one gallbladder.  I feel so much better!  Of course, they have me on more meds, which I am not crazy about (1 for blood pressure, 1 for heart, 1 for the cholesterol problem I don’t have but “just in case”), but…well…doctors.

And the cause of the heart attack?  The consensus, for now, is “stress”.  Eating better and exercising will help a lot, but my main stressors are poverty-related, so I will have to do better coping with these conditions.  Transportation (length and type, I don’t mean “assholes on the bus” lol), living far from family, and not having set goals all take their toll.

Aside #5: After giving it some thought, I am going to add “being single” here to the list.  I don’t like admitting it, but I do think that I am one of these people who is happier when I am in a decent relationship.  “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow”, or so states a Swedish proverb (ThinkExist.com).  Not everyone is like that, and I wasn’t like that for a long time, but after recovering from domestic violence I think I am ready again to share both joys and sorrows.

Anyway, to the women who read this blog, and to the men who have women in their lives…please pay attention to symptoms such as nausea/vomiting that lasts more than a day, with or without sweating.

I had very bad fatigue also, and had to stop after 2 or 3 steps on the stairs to my apartment (which is only 11 stairs up).

What I did not have was shortness of breath or chest pain.  That’s what tripped me up – I thought I had to have those 2 symptoms!  So, if you or someone you love has weird symptoms, even without chest pain or shortness of breath, go to the emergency room.  Far better to be safe than sorry.

And if you are thinking, “I can’t afford to go the the ER!” then ask yourself this: Can your loved ones afford not to have you around?  Hospital bills can be negotiated; your presence on earth cannot be.  My heartbeats were wildly unstable when I arrived at the ER, and I don’t know if I would have survived if I had just “toughed it out”.

Please just remember that when it comes to heart attacks, things are not always as they seem.

I don’t have any weirdness except for a “sort of” recommendation for a movie called “Oz the Great and Powerful”, starring James Franco.  It’s sappy, it’s happily-ever-after, it’s a morality tale, but I really liked it.  Suitable for kids over, say, 8 or so, and not nearly as scary as “The Wizard of Oz”.   I am a James Franco fan so I enjoyed seeing him in this part.

Be good.  Be kind.  Be mindful.

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