How My Wake-Up Call In an Emergency Room Is Changing Me
Last year, a few days before Christmas, I spent the afternoon in an emergency room. I was shaking, nervous, sweating, breathing funny, lightheaded, and experiencing chest pain. I thought I might be dying.
I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack: I couldn’t be having a heart attack. I didn’t have any of the classic symptoms of myocardial infarction I learned about in EMT School. I wasn’t gasping for breath, grabbing at my left arm, falling on the ground saying there was an elephant sitting on my chest. But something was wrong. I had ignored it for several weeks, hoping it would go away. But it didn’t.
I had tachycardia, and I knew it. My heart was beating too fast, and I could feel every single beat. It felt like a drummer was hiding in my chest, pounding on the inside of my ribcage. It didn’t make sense—what was going on, and most of all, why now?
I went to Panera Bread and tried to calm down. I bought some coffee (yes, I know: caffeine? That was a mistake). I closed my eyes, prayed, and tried some breathing exercises I learned years ago from singing opera. Calm down. I need to calm down, I kept thinking.
I wondered if I should just go to the gym and put in a few miles on the treadmill. That usually calms me down and helps me deal with stress. But this was different—this wasn’t normal stress, it was something else. And since my heart was already racing, I wondered if increasing my cardiac activity would push me into dangerous territory, and… well, I wasn’t sure what would happen in that case, but it probably wouldn’t be good.
It wouldn’t stop, and the longer I thought about it, the more I realized I was just stalling for time. I was coming up with all kinds of excuses to ignore the problem—I had even literally thought about outrunning it at the gym. But none of it was working. I had to give up.
I got into my car and started to cry. Shouting at the sky, I was scared, confused, angry, and inconvenienced. I needed help but was too embarrassed to admit it. I’m a tough guy. I could just power my way through it, right? I had always been able to do that in the past. I just get over things.
I think in the past, I would have just ignored it and told myself it was no big deal. But just one year earlier, in September of 2021, my youngest brother just died from a heart attack. He was only 18 years old. He literally fell over and died, right where he was standing, without any warning at all.
Boom. He was gone, forever.
So I knew I couldn’t muscle my way through this. It was muscle, in fact — my heart muscle — that wasn’t working. My brother’s heart had ultimately failed him, and I wondered if the same was going to happen to me somehow. It still didn’t make sense: my health was just fine: I eat well, I go to the gym three times a week, and I’ve taken health screenings before, and everything comes out fine. But this was concerning.
So I drove to an emergency room and walked in the door. I told the lady at the front desk: “I think there’s something wrong with my heart.” “Okay, fill out these forms,” she said, and I took a clipboard and a big stack of papers back to my chair and filled them out.
After I finally finished all the paperwork, they called my name, and I went back into one of the rooms, stripped down, put on a COVID mask and a gown, and laid down on the hospital bed.
Nurses hooked me up to a bunch of tubes and wires and put a needle in my arm (or hand—I can’t remember). It was all so surreal: I hadn’t been in an accident, and there was nothing wrong with me as far as I could tell. I glanced at my iPhone: it was 1:14 pm, on a Monday, the most boring time of day on the most boring day of the week. There was nothing that led up to this level of escalation: I hadn’t been in a car wreck, I wasn’t even in pain, and nothing traumatic had happened to me at all.
But all I could think was: “I have so much work to do. This is going to put me behind.”
As someone who’s self-employed, I have to maintain my own schedule, running a tight ship, with maximum efficiency and minimal distraction and downtime. So whenever inconveniences like this pop up, it’s more irritating than anything else. I walked into the emergency room lobby at 12:56 pm and didn’t leave until around 2:34 pm. That was a big chunk of time totally wasted. Bummer.
They hooked me up to an EKG machine, checked my vitals, and then looked at my heart. It seemed normal, the doctor said. But I was having arrhythmias for unspecified reasons, and that was concerning. But based on my family history, he wanted to give me a heart X-ray. As they prepared to do that, he started asking me questions.
“So, are you under a lot of stress?” he asked, or something very close to that.
Ugh. I hate it when doctors ask questions like, “are you under a lot of stress?” How do I answer that question? How does anybody answer that question? Aren’t we all under a lot of stress?
“Yes, I think you could say that,” I admitted. I told him how I’m the sole income earner for a family of seven. I have two teenagers. I just moved to a new city in a new state where I don’t know a soul, and it’s been an extremely difficult adjustment. I tried not to throw myself a pity party, but I was honest about how hard it is working for myself where I have no regular paycheck, no payday, no sick pay, no paid vacation, and no health benefits. It’s hard enough to stay in business and pay my normal bills, let alone medical bills.
What I didn’t tell him, was that I was deathly afraid to find out how much this visit was going to cost me. When I get the final bill, I thought, I might have preferred to actually be dead.
Long story short, the X-ray came back as normal (which is weird: because if you look at the image, it actually makes my chest look empty, as though I have no heart at all, and no other organs to speak of. I guess in this case, if you can see something, it’s bad. So no news is good news in this case).
My heart seems to be okay. It was beating fast, but not too fast. And the X-ray showed something or other that was good. So the doctor said I’ll be fine. Or I should be fine, at least. So I didn’t need to be that worried, aside from needing to figure out how to calm down and relax.
Phew. Who knew stress could be that intense?
I put my clothes back on, gathered up my things, and left. Later on, I got an $8,000 bill in the mail which was… far bigger than I expected but less than I feared.
I’m not exactly sure about the lessons I was supposed to learn from this. But I do have a few smaller takeaways.
#1: My life is good. It’s very hard, but it’s good.
I don’t want to complain too much, but it’s just the honest truth that my life is very, very difficult and almost nobody understands this. My parents don’t understand, and neither do my wife’s parents—they can’t. Their lives are so different from ours that they can’t even start to understand. None of them have been self-employed: none of them know what it’s like to run a business alone.
My kids don’t understand how hard it is to provide for them, and my wife doesn’t understand because she’s never worked full-time and has certainly never been self-employed. Almost all the people I know and the friends I have always had solid jobs with steady paychecks from decent employers. They have regular paydays, benefits, and coworkers. They don’t have a clue what it’s like to have to wake up on Monday morning and say “I have no idea who I’m going to pay the mortgage that’s due this Friday,” then try to figure it out, over, and over, and over again.
They have no idea what it’s like to work alone, be self-employed, or move to a city where you don’t know a single soul, on top of having five kids to support on one income.
My life has a unique set of variables where, I think, any one of them would be a challenge in and of itself. But for whatever reason, I have about 3 or 4 different variables that make it a lot more difficult than most people I know. I don’t hold that against anybody, but it makes it hard to handle all the stress when there’s nobody to turn to, or nobody who can listen to me explain what I’m going through and truly say “I understand. I know how you feel.”
But… having said all that, my life is good. It’s reeeally good. I shouldn’t complain, but sometimes I do. I have a good life. I have much to be thankful for. I need to keep reminding myself of this.
#2: Stress can be terrifying.
In addition to just being “stressful,” stress can actually do frightening things to you, like put you in the hospital one unexpected Monday. I think I should start prioritizing ways to handle the stress in my life. I think many people should.
#3: It’s time to get deadly serious about a lot of things.
I’ve tried to be a really nice, polite person for much of my life. Trying not to offend people, say too much, or speak out loud about things others would prefer I keep quiet. That’s changing.
What I experienced in the emergency room last December was not exactly a “near-death experience,” but it really could have been. In some ways, I think it should have been. The fact that I have a sibling who actually did die from heart failure, without warning, should be a wake-up call to me, and to everyone in my family.
I’ve just turned 37 years old. That’s not very old, but it’s old enough that these things should be on my mind more now than in the past. As I edge ever closer to the age of 40, I start to wonder about all the things I wanted to have accomplished by now, and, honestly, what I regret most so far is not what I haven’t done per se, but what I haven’t said.
I want to say a lot of things. Good things. Bad things. Sad things. Depressing things. Honest things. But I’ve felt like our society and the people I know only want to hear “good things” that aren’t political, or controversial, or awkward.
But my life is full of political, controversial, awkward, and honest things. And the thing I regret most over the years is keeping it all stuffed inside, censoring myself, and telling myself to keep quiet, to not rock the boat, and not upset anybody.
So there you have it. I had a scare at an emergency room that frightened me by showing me how fragile and frail I am. And I intend to learn from it by A) being honest about how hard life is, B) being more thankful for the life I have, and C) getting serious about things I’ve been putting off, or telling myself not to do.
I look forward to seeing what comes next.