When the Heart Hurts

For the last two months I’ve gone to bed believing that I might not wake up the next morning. It wasn’t something I wanted to discuss with my wife, who slept so peacefully next to me each night that I just didn’t want to disturb her. But what was going on inside me was real. My heart hurt.

It hurt when I was at rest, not when I was active. It hurt in a way it had never hurt before. It hurt when I lay on my left side. It hurt less, but still hurt, when I lay on my back. It didn’t hurt when I moved to my right side and curled into a fetal position. So that is how I went to sleep, curled up like a baby, my back to my wife, fearing that if I tossed and turned and wound up on my back or on my left side the arteries I was sure had reached their plaque limit would block the blood flow to my heart and I would die. Or, at the very least, I would have a heart attack.

I decided I’d better see my doctor. He gave me an EKG, took some chest x-rays, and told me all was well. Oh yeah? I thought. Then why does my heart hurt?

He said that what I was feeling was probably a muscle pull, but suggested I consider having my heart scanned for calcium buildup in the arteries. It was a simple non-evasive procedure, he said. You stretch out on a table, go through the scanner, and in three minutes you’re done. They give you the results right there.

It sounded like that magic pill we’re all looking for, the one that once you swallow you will lose twenty pounds, your skin will shine, and your hair will darken.  The drawback was that insurance didn’t cover the cost, and it cost $395.

$395 can buy you a new Montblanc pen. It can pay for fifteen new hardback books. Buy you 395 chances to win the lottery. But I figured if I didn’t have to have anything injected into my body, if I didn’t have to be cut open, if all I had to do was lay on an aluminum table and take some deep breaths, then $395 might just buy me a whole lot of peace of mind.  Or, on the other hand, it might show me what I had already assumed: that my arteries were clogged.  I pretty much accepted the fact that if I shelled out the money, I should be prepared to go from the Imaging Center to the emergency room, where my chest would be pried open and heart surgery would be performed. Or, if I was lucky, a stent or two would enter my body through my groin, worm its way up to the clogged artery, rotor-root away the plaque, and allow the blood to flow in and out of my heart like a normal person.

This is what happened to two friends. One had open heart surgery; the other had two stents inserted.  I visited one in the hospital and saw her scar. I spoke to the other, who told me he had what was called a widow’s peak—that is, he had no symptoms of being tired or in pain, but one of his arteries was 90% blocked.  These two, along with the friends I had who were suffering from colon, pancreatic, and lung cancer, made me feel very vulnerable. I was at the age where these things happened. I didn’t have any sharp pains in my chest, it was something more difficult to describe. It just hurt.

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