by Carolyn Thomas ♥ @HeartSisters
My doctor recently compared my uneasy adjustment since suffering a heart attack to being like a stressful move to a foreign country.
I used to be pretty comfortable in my old country, pre-heart attack. I was healthy, active, outgoing, and a former distance runner. I had a wonderful family and a whack of close friends, a meaningful career I really loved, a crazy-cute cat, a condo renovated top to bottom in a charming leafy neighbourhood of the most beautiful city in Canada – and a busy, happy, regular life.
Then on May 6, 2008, after being misdiagnosed and sent home from the Emergency Department despite textbook cardiac symptoms, I was hospitalized with a myocardial infarction – what doctors still call the “widowmaker” heart attack.
And that was the day I moved far, far away to a different country.
Breast cancer radiation oncologist Dr. Marisa Weiss described a similar move when she was, ironically, diagnosed with breast cancer herself one spring:
“Now I have dual citizenship in a country I never wanted to belong to.”
Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues, said this about her own cancer experience during a speech to a women’s conference in Long Beach, California:
“And when I wake up, I am in a new country. Nothing is familiar. Because the possibility of not dying is gone. Because I am now living in the land of the sick. Turns out my being a vegetarian- sober-nonsmoker-activist has not protected me at all.”
And the late author Christopher Hitchens told his Vanity Fair readers about the arrival of emergency paramedics at his home after he suddenly collapsed one day due to his cancer symptoms:
” Now that I view the scene in retrospect, I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”
As the late writer and activist Susan Sontag once wrote:
“ Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.
“Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
The late Dr. Jessie Gruman, who spent more time than most as a hospital patient, wrote in her Prepared Patient Forum column and in her important book AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You – or Someone You Love – a Devastating Diagnosis:
“Every time I have received bad health news, I have felt like a healthy person who has been accidentally drop-kicked into a foreign country: I don’t know the language, the culture is unfamiliar, I have no idea what is expected of me, I have no map and I desperately want to find my way home.”
Exiled to my own “foreign country” called Heart Disease, nothing around me felt familiar or normal anymore after I survived a heart attack. I was in a profound state of denial and shock. The simplest of tasks – like taking a shower or any other activity that includes lifting my arms above the head – now required a supreme effort and a 20-minute lie-down afterwards to recover.
I was fatigued and anxious at the same time, convinced by ongoing chest pain and shortness of breath that a second heart attack must be imminent. I felt a cold, low-grade terror on a daily basis.
And my worried family and friends could not and did not even begin to comprehend what was going on for me – because I could scarcely understand it myself. Sensing their distress, I tried to paste on my best PR smiley face around them so we could all pretend that everything was “normal” again. But making even minimal conversation felt so exhausting that it eventually seemed much easier to just avoid other people entirely.
I also felt deeply ashamed that I just could not seem to pull myself together.
As U.K. physician Dr. Jonathon Tomlinson recently described this isolation-seeking side effect of depression:
“Shame is strongly associated with depression, but even more strongly associated with social anxiety; we fear revealing our shame, and so we withdraw from the world.”
Instead of feeling happy and grateful because I had survived what many do not, I frightened myself by weeping openly over nothing in particular. I couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything. I slept in my clothes. I didn’t care how I looked or how I smelled. I had no interest in reading, walking, talking, or getting out of bed. Everything seemed like just way too much trouble.
And every night at bedtime, I quietly (and unconsciously) prepared for my own death overnight.
What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I able to just snap out of it?
One day, at about the seven week post-heart attack mark, I finally felt like I had had quite enough of this heart disease, thank you very much. In a fit of pique, I marched around the apartment gathering up get well cards and lovely bouquets of flowers and anything else that reminded me or my family or anybody else that some kind of invalid lived here. I tossed all of them into the trash, and waited to feel better.
It didn’t work. The apartment, however, did look a whole lot tidier.
Worse, none of this felt like like my real self, like my real life, like my real world. I began to fret that the old me was truly gone. Would I ever get it back? Maybe if I could just return to work, maybe then I might once again feel ‘normal’ again during a time when nothing about this new country felt normal.
It took three long months after my heart attack before I received medical clearance to attempt a return-to-work trial, half-days only to start. By then, I had used up all my vacation days and all my sick time, and could no longer afford to stay home from my public relations position at our local hospice palliative care society. And I felt absolutely desperate to get back to work.
But I realized within the first week back at the office, after all the ‘welcome back’ hugs and solicitous fussing by my colleagues had faded, about the same time that multiple project deadlines started to pile up alarmingly, that I was simply no longer able to function in my old PR life.
More anxiety, more terror, more weeping, more chest pain. I don’t know how I made it, but I somehow hung on for a full month before my doctor finally ordered me to leave work immediately on extended medical leave. Worse, in order to survive financially, I had to face the humiliating option of applying for longterm disability benefits – which meant I had to get my brain wrapped around the reality that I – ME of all people! – would be termed “disabled”.
Leaving work felt almost worse than suffering through the workday stress. As weeks turned into months, my hope of returning to my old pre-heart attack self dimmed as the reality of life in this new country of mine sank in.
Where once I had been competent, I now felt unsure.
Where I had once made decisions with lightning speed, I now seemed incapable of making even the most insignificant choice.
I was seeing my physician on a weekly basis by now, was referred to the Regional Pain Clinic to address debilitating chest pain, had to go back into hospital for another cardiac procedure, was newly-diagnosed with Inoperable Coronary Microvascular Disease (MVD), started seeing a therapist, and was prescribed more and more drugs to help get me through this state of anguish, pain and despair.
My once-busy life has become reduced to what I called ‘one-outing’ days, ‘two-outing’ days, or (rarely) ‘three-outing’ days. Each outing – a doctor’s appointment, for example – is followed immediately by two hours back home flaked out on the couch in order to recuperate from the bone-crushing fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain brought on by the outing. Going out in the evenings has become almost unbearable, and when we do, I have to rest up for hours in preparation, and I usually need the full next day to recover.
The distress of adjusting to such a debilitating change to one’s lifestyle is hard to describe to those who have never experienced it. Yet there are travel agents and tour guides here who actually have tools to help us along the journey – although I personally never met them.
For example, we know that we have at least 12 measurement surveys available to the medical profession that look at factors like “the search for meaning in chronic illness”.
These surveys have been used for many patients being treated for AIDS or cancer, such as the Psychosocial Adjustment To Illness Inventory or the Meaning of Illness Questionnaire. A 2008 study found, alas, that limiting factors in the success of these tools included “the infrequent use of some of the instruments clinically or in research.”
I can’t help but wonder why these readily available psychosocial tools are not being administered routinely to heart patients during post-MI recovery.
And where are the models of “survivorship“ care plans for heart patients that are so well-entrenched in the oncology world of cancer survivors?
With much backsliding, and my newly revised cardiac diagnosis of MVD, I’ve had to learn through painful practice the fine art of p-a-c-i-n-g throughout each day.
I have now found that most days, I can actually function pretty well as long as I remember to balance every single activity each day with an even longer period of rest. And, as Susannah Fox of The Pew Internet Project wrote:
” It’s not surprising that when someone gets dropped into this kingdom of the sick, they grab their phones, they grab their laptops, they grab their loved ones, and they go.
“They go into that unfamiliar area of a new diagnosis, a new drug, a new treatment. They consult experts. They call and search and text. They band together and form posses, pioneers sharing maps with newcomers.
That’s what I did. I researched women’s heart disease like I was cramming for a cardiology midterm. I tried to figure out why an E.R. doc with the letters MD after his name had sent me home with an acid reflux misdiagnosis despite presenting with my textbook heart attack symptoms, and why so many other women were also being misdiagnosed like me, too.
While researching this on the Mayo Clinic website, I learned about the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for WomenWith Heart Disease held each year at Mayo in Rochester, Minnesota. I applied to attend, and I then became the first Canadian ever accepted to attend this prestigious training.
After returning home to the West Coast, I began speaking to small groups of women at what I called my “Pinot & Prevention” parties – as my health allowed. My speaking invitations grew to include presentations at conferences, community centres, universities, service club dinners and Heart and Stroke Foundation events. And my Mayo Clinic training opened doors for me through invitations to speak about women’s experiences with heart disease to senior health care professionals in mental health, cardiology and emergency medicine.
I launched this site, Heart Sisters. And I wrote a book based on some of the most popular of the 900+ articles here called “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).
My public relations friends tease me that this is just what happens when a PR person has a heart attack. We keep on doing what we’ve always done, what we know how to do best: writing and speaking and looking stuff up.
On top of taking a whack of cardiac meds each morning, my Coronary Microvascular Disease chest pain symptoms are being addressed now by my cardiologist and Pain Clinic specialists with an innovative non-invasive therapy called a TENS unit that I wear clipped to my belt all day, every day, its tiny electrodes taped over my heart. (See also: My Love-Hate Relationship With My Little Black Box). If for some reason this TENS therapy – along with those cardiac meds I pop every day – fails to adequately manage my daily symptoms, my pain specialist’s Plan B includes other potential pain management options such as Spinal Cord Stimulator Implant or Stellate Ganglion Nerve Block.
In this new country called heart disease, the culture here demands a profound respect for prioritizing.
This means learning new customs, like putting myself and my physical/mental/emotional health needs first. This seems to be harder than you’d think, particularly for women. (See also: Are You a Priority In Your Own Life?)
It means learning how to nap like a pre-schooler, or just sit and have a rest when I need to. It means learning to limit social contact to those who lift my spirits, make me laugh, or bring me casseroles. It means learning how to say “NO!“ to a lot of things, from Tim Horton’s maple dips to those ‘energy vampire’ people who can suck the life right out of you.
At first it was extremely painful, as a newly arrived citizen in this new country, to learn that those still living in my old “country of the well” – as Hitchens calls it – are doing just fine without me. My work colleagues, for example, have somehow managed to keep the place running perfectly fine even though I’ve now been gone for years. The world has continued to spin on its axis, even without me being in charge. As the old saying goes:
“The graveyards of the world are filled with indispensable people!”
And in the words of Susannah Fox:
“The number one thing that people try to do is to get the hell out of the kingdom of the sick and back to the kingdom of the well.”
The reality, however, is that some of us have been forced to permanently surrender our passports and will not ever get back.
Welcome to the new country.
© Carolyn Thomas – Heart Sisters www.myheartsisters.org
An excerpt from this essay was also published in SCOPE by Stanford University School of Medicine.
This post was also picked up as a guest post on The Mighty
* Drew Leder. Illness & Exile: Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Literature & Medicine 9. 1-11. ©1990 The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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39 thoughts on “Welcome to your new country”
I realise this blog is from some years ago, but I’m just now finding it today as I sit doing nothing or resting as you correctly put it.
I have gone through all the feelings you describe with no idea that I was not alone in the world. I had a heart attack one year after retirement in 2008 and often grieved for that person, now I have a new perspective on a whole new way of looking at my new country.
I had a dear husband, deceased in 2014, and plenty of family and friends who were so good to me but until now there was no understanding of how I was really feeling.
From now, today, 25th March 2018, I am living in the present and thankful for life.
Thank you for your words of wisdom, Carolyn.
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Hello Brenda – you are most certainly not alone in the world. In fact, when I first wrote this essay eight years ago, I was stunned to learn that there are actually so many quotable quotes out there from so many other people who have compared their own serious medical diagnoses to the scenario of moving to a strange foreign country. All we want to do at a time like that is to GO HOME! It’s seems to be a comforting universal response when trying to make sense out of something that makes no sense.
I’m so glad to hear from you today…
I am 58 and have been living with heart disease since I was 46. A widow maker blockage that lead to bypass surgery. Like you, I have small vessel disease and microvascular spasms. I have symptoms every few months and visit my cardiologist for a change in medication that helps for a while.
The month of August I was symptomatic nearly every day. August 23rd I visited my cardiologist and we increased my Norvasc by 2.5 grams. August 24th I went on vacation. I have been symptom free since then ( Sept 3, still on vacation). I think it’s the stress off my 30 year office manager job in Dentistry that is more of an issue causing the need of constant med changes. I am hoping to retire in one year when I am 59 and a half. But maybe I need to look into disability sooner…life has sure been more comfortable this last week.
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Interesting experiment you’re observing here, Jennifer. Could be the combination of both your Norvasc dosage-tweaking AND your relaxing vacation that’s causing this remarkable break in symptoms. Perhaps your body is trying to tell you something? Also depends on how you visualize your overall quality of life for the one year you have left at work: do you see yourself enduring severe daily symptoms and many med changes, or do you see yourself as “symptom free” like you have been lately?
I find that emotional stress always impacts my own symptoms far more than physical activity or any other common cardiac stressor. Running late for an appointment, for example, can cause a flare of debilitating symptoms that are so bad that I’ve often had to pull the car over to take my nitro and settle down – thus causing me, ironically, to be even later!
Good luck to you…
I truly think it’s the emotional stress at work. On vacation I kayaked, cleaned a storage room at my mother’s, went camping… was very physical. No symptoms. That is pretty usual for me.
But the stress of work gets me. And because I become symptomatic at work, exercise and living well after working hours don’t happen. Last summer I recovered from a spinal fusion of my L5 and S1. I was home for 9 weeks. I don’t recall a single day in that recovery that I needed nitro. Walked every day and rested when I needed. The decision I need to make is hard. Do I live life to the fullest and enjoy it ( with less money) or limp along and struggle with the bigger pay check. Of course I can’t touch my 401k for another year. Hum…
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Seems to me that you already know the answer to this dilemma (unless “limping along and struggling” actually sounds like a viable option!) A friend of mine was also debating a similar conundrum: retiring from the crushing workload of her senior management position, or sticking it out for another two years which would make her eligible for increased final pension income. She tried the latter (because of its obvious financial impact) but she paid a terrible price, month after month, both physically and mentally, and ended up having to leave just short of the minimal time required to get that extra money – so all that physical and mental suffering was for nothing after all.
Life is very, very short, Jennifer… ♥
Thank you for being a sounding board.
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Reblogged this on Nurse's Links to Resources.
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I am humbled as a nurse. Helped as a child caring for an ill mother with heart disease and diabetes. Bolstered as a patient who has suffered from asthma my entire life. Reminded of the pain and frustration we went through caring for my father with AIDS and my late husband as he succumbed to malignant melanoma.
Thank you as always Carolyn for your amazing gift of writing and sharing with us.
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Beth, you have such a unique perspective as a patient, daughter, and spouse, so you know what it means to be “transported” to that new “kingdom of the sick”. I’m sure that all of those different viewpoints also helped you become a better and more empathetic nurse. Thanks for your kind words…
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I came across your site while searching for info about Spinal Cord Stimulators being used to help with cardiac pain. I was not expecting to find this very well-written essay about passports, losing your country, or being deported. But it makes so much sense.
I’ve had years living in an unplanned, isolated island, but it’s only recently (with another diagnosis) that I feel my passport back ‘home’ has been revoked.
Thank you for your writing, and for sharing your life with us. I am very impressed with you as a person, and I’ve only read this one page so far. (I plan to keep on reading through your entire site. I love supporting a fellow Canadian, and even more so when I feel like we’ve been in the same boat).
I wish you the best,
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Thank you, A. I appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective (and kind words) here. Best of luck to you with your recent diagnosis…
Oh my goodness, can hardly see these words for the tears rolling down my face! Wow wow
I have totally felt all of these emotions for last 4 months since my heart attack. My daily struggle I think is getting worse not better. I look back at that old land with rose tinted glasses; I see a busy career girl, a slim girl ( I have put weight on since stopping smoking after heart attack), a girl who had tons of friends (about 2 now) busy and had loads of money. Now I see a fat, lonely, poor and very nasty person!!
I didn’t realise there was anybody out there in this new country, I thought I was alone!
Thank you for being so vulnerable and sharing your beautiful story.
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Thanks for your kind words, Paula. You are definitely not alone, although that’s often how we feel when it seems we’re the only ones feeling so low. Please get your hands on a copy of the book called Thriving With Heart Disease by Dr. Wayne Sotile (I think it’s out of print but you can find it in used-book shops or online). And if you’re not already seeing a professional counsellor, talk to your doctor/pastor/community clinic for talk therapy, which so many have found to be helpful during what we call “situational depression“. The struggle you mention does feel worse before it gets better, but it CAN and WILL get better! Hang in there…
Carolyn, thank you for this wonderful site and for all your posts. I have just discovered this site and have been reading like mad.
I am currently in limbo and I am terrified. I have been a patient in the world of psychiatric illness for most of my life – depression and anorexia, I am 54 years old – and through a lot of work in therapy, I have finally come to a place in my life where I am leading a productive and fulfilling life.
I see a cardiologist for the first time on Friday and I am scared that heart disease will be a new country for me. I have travelled enough, thank you. I had extensive dental surgery a month ago – six extractions and six bone grafts in order to receive upper dentures and since then I have been experiencing cardiac symptoms. Through my reading, I am aware that the inflammation triggered by the dental procedure can trigger heart issues. My father had heart disease at a young age and my grandmother died of a heart attack.
Chest, back, jaw and (lower) tooth pain, significant shortness of breath (especially upon exertion), dizziness, nausea, unrelenting fatigue – can’t get out of bed today. I did go the ER and they did take me seriously – kept me overnight. One EKG showed tachycardia but two others were normal. Cardiac enzymes were normal. Had an echo and wore a Holter – will get the results on Friday.
I’m finally at rest from the emotional pain that drove me to attempt suicide a year ago. I don’t want another journey which from what I gather from reading your site, can be equally as devastating.
Hello Andrea – I’m not a physician so of course cannot comment on your specific symptoms. I can tell you however that – although heart disease is often considered a “new country” – you do NOT have to move there until you absolutely have to – and who knows? Maybe not ever. Limbo is a dreadful place to be – I’ve always thought it’s better to have any news, even bad news, because then you’ll immediately be presented with some sort of plan.
Between now and your cardiologist’s appointment on Friday, try hard not to spend your limbo time being hypervigilant about every symptom, essentially like relentlessly ‘packing your bags’ for a journey you aren’t even sure you’ll ever take. Right now, you simply don’t have enough diagnostic information to know exactly what’s what. Focus on the small positive steps that have helped you in the past – not on the great unknowns out there that are guaranteed to make any of us feel more afraid.
It’s very good news that the ER staff took you seriously, and that you already have an appointment with a cardiologist. Rather than thinking of that appointment with dread, try thinking that this appointment will finally be able to offer you some answers to ease your mind. It’s also good news that, because of your own brave efforts, you know you can establish that sense of rest you were in before your dental surgery. If possible, an appointment with your therapist might help while you’re waiting. Best of luck to you, Andrea….