Innocence lost: life after a heart attack


by Carolyn Thomas    ♥   @HeartSisters

Written one month after my heart attack, June 2008:
“It isn’t the moment you are struck when you need courage, but the long uphill battle back to sanity and faith and security.”    Anne Morrow Lindbergh

.The wisdom of this quote strikes me every day.  In hindsight, the time I spent hospitalized in the Coronary Care Unit after my heart attack four weeks ago seems like the easiest part of this adventure.

Back then, I was surrounded every moment by round the clock state-of-the-art technology and highly-trained professionals whose only goal was to save my life and make me well enough to go home. 

I didn’t appreciate this at the time, but later learned that The Royal Jubilee Hospital has an outstanding cardiothoracic surgical, research and teaching reputation, enough that it attracts many skilled cardiologists to come live in our beautiful seaside city.  I was treated with compassion and respect from the moment I was admitted to Emergency after a terrifying cross-country flight from Ottawa rife with increasingly debilitating cardiac symptoms including two particularly terrifying episodes lasting several minutes each.

It sounds crazy now, but at no point did I consider calling over the flight attendants for help. That’s because two weeks earlier, an Emergency doc at the same hospital had misdiagnosed my textbook heart attack symptoms as acid reflux, and sent me home from hospital, feeling so embarrassed for having made a fuss over nothing.  I had returned to the E.R. this second time just to get serious drugs for this unbearable indigestion, but hey! – I knew it wasn’t my heart because a man with the letters M.D. after his name had told me quite clearly:

“It is NOT your heart!” 

It’s only been in the weeks spent recuperating here at home since I was discharged from CCU that the full impact of this uphill path to recovery has hit me.

I’m facing a new journey now, a trek towards a ‘new normal’.

It strikes me that I must move from identifying myself as a ‘heart patient’ to being just a regular person again with countless facets of life, family, friends, work, plans – a person who just happens to have heart disease.

I must also re-learn how to trust my body again, having learned that the healthy body that’s served me so well for over five decades has somehow failed me quite catastrophically. I must move to a place where the gnawing sense of terrifying hyper-vigilance that I now feel at every hiccup or twinge, every single day, day after day, can somehow fade.

I must learn how to be myself again.

©2008Carolyn Thomas

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:    I wrote more about the pitfalls of that eternal smiley-face – especially in women –  in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (use the JHUPress code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).

See also:

The New Country called heart disease

How can we get heart patients past the E.R. gatekeepers?

Handling the homecoming blues: the third stage of heart attack recovery

Where’s the “survivorship” model for heart patients?

“To just be a person, and not a patient anymore”

How expecting recovery can help heart attack survivors


Q:  How would you describe your first month at home after being discharged from hospital with a serious diagnosis?

4 thoughts on “Innocence lost: life after a heart attack

  1. A lot of people including at my Cardiac Rehab classes have talked about this “NEW NORMAL” that I’m supposed to get used to from now on.

    I hate that term. I want my OLD NORMAL back again. I don’t want to have to adapt and adjust to what seems like a stranger’s life, not my own anymore. To give in to this “NEW NORMAL” would feel like just giving up hope. I am a competent successful active outgoing business owner but since my double bypass open heart surgery I feel weak, anxious, weepy and frightened at every little twinge or pain. THIS is what I’m supposed to get used to? No way.


    1. Hello Josie – many survivors feel just as you do as they try to come to grips with what the heck has just hit them. Nobody warns us about the traumatic emotional toll that heart disease can bring, and we can easily assume that because our doctors have patched us up, everything is fine, just fine now.

      Often, this readjustment can take a long time – as Dr. Stephen Parker likes to say, a cardiac event is a “deeply wounding” psychological experience and, just like any physical wound, it takes time to recover from it. It can feel even scarier for those of us who have always been ‘in charge’ successful types – suddenly, we don’t feel so ‘in charge’ at all! Please don’t hesitate to seek professional counselling to help you as you try to make sense of all this. Talk to your rehab coordinator about local resources to assist you.

      And you’ll find lots more about this here.


  2. Absolutely loved this Heart Sisters piece. When you write: “I must move from identifying myself as a ‘heart patient’ to being just a regular person again with countless facets of life, family, friends, work, plans – a person who just happens to have heart disease.” – you have nailed it.

    So many of my patients somehow fail to reach this transition point, and can become STUCK in “heart patient” mode forever.


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s