Late on an autumn night in 2003, the rain was coming down so heavy I almost didn’t hear the faint thumping at our garage door downstairs. My husband lay in bed next to me, snoring and oblivious. But I knew something was wrong. I heard the thump again. I rushed down to our kitchen and opened up the door to find my 69 year old mother slumped up against the wall on the steps that led to her apartment.
“I….can’t….breathe….” she whispered, her face white.
I yelled for my husband as I struggled to lift her and slowly walked her to our couch.
“Call 911,” I said over and over again, my voice cracking. My husband had already called for an ambulance. Five minutes ticked by and still no siren. Where were they?
“You’ll be fine, Mom. Just fine. You will,” I held her hand and felt it growing colder. “You will be fine,” I repeated again. She closed her eyes. Her breathing grew raspy and faint. Panic rose in my throat as her hands started to shake.
After a few more minutes, red lights danced in our windows. My husband would stay home with our one year old and I would go alone to the hospital with my mom. As they checked her vitals, the paramedics spoke to my mom in hushed tones. After an eternity they loaded her into the back of the ambulance, rain pouring down on top of all of us. I sat in the front seat and waited, crying and shaking from the cold rain. Why weren’t they going?? Go! Just go!
The emergency room was strangely quiet. My mom lay on a stretcher, gurgling and gasping for air and I was sitting alone next to her, a thin curtain drawn around us for privacy. After a few minutes a tired ER doctor held up her X-ray in front of the light.
“Do you understand what you’re seeing here?” he asked me. I stared straight ahead.
“This,” he pointed to the area of her lungs, “means she is full of fluid. This is why she can’t breathe. We need to determine the cause. It could be pneumonia. Or she could be suffering from congestive heart failure. Has she been sick lately? A cold?”
My mind lept back to the previous week. She had complained of her allergies. She said she was stuffed up, and was wheezing a lot. She also mentioned she had felt a bit nauseous and dizzy. But she’d never said anything about pain in her chest. She hadn’t complained of any pain at all. This couldn’t be a heart attack. Could it?
The rest of the night was a hazy blur of nurses rushing around, telling me they were doing what they could to help my mom. At one point around 1 am, the ER doctor informed me things were very dire as they were attempting to clear her lungs but she might not have much longer to live. He suggested I talk to her right away and let her know I was there beside her. To say my goodbye.
I felt my own breath catch as I touched her hand. It was shockingly white, cold and lifeless. My mom was dying right in front of me. This was it, she was going to die and I was the only one here to say goodbye to her, as my brothers were still on their way. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t.
I wish I remembered all of what I said to her, but I don’t. What do you say to your mom who’s about to die? I remember saying, “I love you, Mom” over and over and whispering to her that everything would be okay. My tears were flowing nonstop now. At one point I made a little joke to lighten the unbearable mood and she chuckled through her gasps. She held onto my hand and told me to tell my brothers she would be fine and that she loved them all very much. She seemed to be taking this death thing much better than I was at the moment.
My brothers all arrived and we sat in a dim waiting room for hours, watching TV and waiting for our mom to either die or recover.
Around 3 am, one of the nurses poked her head into the room and with a huge smile on her face exclaimed, “She’s taken a turn!” We all looked at each other. “For the better!” she yelled, adding, “We didn’t think she would, but she did!” We all stood up, exhausted and not believing these words were true. But my mom did round that corner; she met up with death and said, “not now, sorry, maybe next time.”
She spent the next few days in the ICU, preparing to move to another bigger hospital at Maine Medical Center. She was scheduled to have quintuple bypass surgery and her mitral valve replaced. She had suffered congestive heart failure. Later, the doctor informed me she likely had several heart attacks over the years by the looks of the deceased heart muscle they had found.
On the day of the operation, one of their best cardiac surgeons reassurred me they’d take good care of her and they were planning on replacing her mitral valve with a valve made from animal tissue. The surgery lasted almost ten hours. The surgeon finally came to us in the waiting room and said it couldn’t have gone better, she was doing great. They ended up putting a metal ring around her valve instead of using the pig’s valve. My brothers and I all laughed at this news, “She’ll have no pig inside her after all!”
Back in the ICU, my younger brother and I stood at her bedside as she lay hooked up to a million tubes. My mom stirred awake, grumbling and moaning. “Hey!” she croaked, “Do I have a sheep’s heart now? Am I a sheep? Baaa-baaaaa…” she murmured, giggling, the drugs still working their magic.
Today, she’s doing well and last fall marked nine years since her heart failure. If if wasn’t for her crawling down those stairs to get help, if I hadn’t heard those little thumps at the door, she would not be here right now.
This month is heart health month.
Please, become aware of all of the signs of a heart attack and stroke.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women. Many ignore their symptoms until it’s too late.
The following is a great video that uses humor to get the point across:
Signs of Heart Failure–Mayo Clinic
The Warning Signs of Stroke–Web MD