After clearing U.S. Customs on June 20, I rushed through the Los Angeles airport to catch my flight home to Idaho. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I maneuvered my carry-on suitcase to the nearest chair and fell into it, panting for air. One thought repeated through my mind: Get home.
An airline employee noticed my predicament and called for a wheelchair. My guardian angel appeared disguised as a gregarious, Black woman named Diamond. She assisted me into the chair and eased my distress with funny stories as she negotiated the crowds. I finally could breathe without gasping and asked her if she had been a race car driver.
“Oh honey, no,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. You wouldn’t believe the people I have guided through these corridors. Lots of famous people. Are you famous?”
I smiled. “More like infamous,” I replied. I explained how I was returning from Todos Santos, Mexico after presenting a workshop at a writer’s retreat.
“I want to write a book!” she exclaimed as she careened around a corner to the gate. “I have tons of stories!”
I encouraged her to find free online writing courses, write every night, and compile her memories into short stories. As she pushed my chair down the ramp to the plane, she promised to send me a copy of her future book. I thanked Diamond and hoped I’d be alive to read it.
Taking My Breath Away
My breathing problems began months earlier. I ignored the loss of breath and low energy, believing the problems would go away. They didn’t. Finally, on May 25 I had an EKG, and my doctor identified a “left bundle branch block,” meaning there was a blockage on the left side of my heart. The condition indicated heart disease. That diagnosis wasn’t on my agenda.
She referred me to a cardiologist and warned it could take months to get an appointment. I got on the phone with the determination of a woman who didn’t want to die during the summer. The stars were aligned, the doctor at St. Luke’s Idaho Cardiology Associates had a cancellation, and I secured an appointment to see him on June 3. The cardiologist reviewed the EKG and ordered comprehensive blood work, a complete transthoracic echocardiogram, and a Nuclear Lexiscan stress test. The Nuclear Lexiscan test injects radioactive dye into the blood, and a camera detects damage to the heart and blocked arteries. The four-hour procedures were scheduled for June 29, only five weeks after the initial EKG. The cardiologist gave me permission to attend the writer’s retreat in Mexico but with a stern warning to avoid stress. I laughed.
On June 29, I was ushered into a room with Teresa, the medical technician who would perform the echocardiogram. I watched the monitor as she applied a gel to my chest and moved a tool called a transducer. I immediately admired and appreciated my heart. There it was, pumping as best it could. The average heart beats more than 100,000 times in one day, about 35 million times in a year. My heart was the most consistent part of my entire life. I regretted not taking better care of my heart health.
After an hour, Teresa called for an IV to be inserted in my arm so she could take more tests. Then she called for the cardiologist. I suspected something was wrong.
“Keep beating,” I silently begged my heart. “I need ten more years.”
The cardiologist appeared after reviewing the echocardiogram. “We’re cancelled the three-hour Nuclear Lexiscan test,” he said. “Your heart is too weak.”
I had failed the heart test.
I’d Rather Play Bette Midler’s Role in Beaches
He explained that my heart only was working at 70 percent because of a damaged left ventricle. I had cardiomyopathy; a disease similar to what killed Barbara Hershey’s character in the movie Beaches. I’d rather have played Bette Midler’s role.
He prescribed several medications and scheduled a return visit for July 22. Depending on the prognosis, I could be cleared for the Nuclear Lexiscan test. After that, a pacemaker could be installed to regulate the flow of blood. The next scenario would be open heart surgery. I was way too young for all those medical procedures, but I knew heart disease was the #1 killer of women. I wanted to live.
What causes heart damage?
Smoking – I have never smoked, not even during the 70s in college when everyone was smoking pot. I wanted to retain all my brain cells.
Alcohol – I lamented my proclivity to prefer wine over workouts. Four days ago, I changed to sparkling water in a wine glass.
Diet – More veggies for me.
Exercise – I had exercised by carrying emotional baggage. That will end, and now I have a set schedule to exercise every day.
Age and Heredity – Thanks, Dad and Mom! However, I’ve enjoyed 69 splendid years.
Stress – What, me worry? It’s been a stressful year. We moved in January, I tore ligaments in my leg in February, performed a writing webinar on Zoom in March, had a brain MRI for acute headaches in April, and appeared twice in District Court in May to appeal a cruel and undeserved Protection Order against me. The judge terminated the order, but the ordeal emotionally broke my heart. The writing workshop in Mexico was in June. All those issues contributed to copious quantities of stress.
This week, I’ve had fun clearing my calendar, postponing appointments, and canceling workshops, but I intend to appear in a live comedy show for a women’s conference in October. Until then, my day will focus on staying alive and starting a (short) walking routine. My goal is to walk away from painful, stressful situations and walk toward better health. I have a broken heart. I might not be able to mend it, but I can tend it.