Less than 24 hours later, I found him face-down on the floor.
Until now, I’ve never written about my husband’s heart-attack. Until now, I’ve never even tried. As a writer, I know my words will be inadequate in describing the events and the emotions of that day and the days that followed. But for some reason, I feel compelled to try to write about it today. Perhaps I feel inclined to share this very intimate slice of life because we are coming up on the fourth anniversary, and I have always promised myself that I would write about it, but I needed time. And now, I find that I go over the details in my mind like I am trying to hold onto them, afraid I will forget and lose the experience forever.
And wouldn’t it be good to lose such an experience? It certainly wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t like a graduation or a wedding where you stop and think, “I want to remember this feeling always.” Heart-attacks aren’t teary-eyed Hallmark moments. They aren’t tender or sweet. They are gritty. They are scary. They are think-fast-moments.
And for me, the story begins a day earlier than when the actual heart attack took place.
The first snowflakes fell on the windshield of our car as we left the parking lot of the skating rink, and I was, indeed, happy. And joyful. And peaceful. My husband was driving. I was in the passenger seat. Our two children in car seats behind us. We had been at the rink for a family outing with my mom-club. I didn’t skate. In fact, I had never ice-skated, and because I had given birth via c-section just three weeks earlier, I had decided not to try—not that day, anyway. I had sat in the stands holding my well-bundled baby boy while my husband glided around the rink with our daughter.
A friend sat next to me. Her husband and her son were also on the ice, and she gushed over how precious my baby was and asked to hold him. “I want another one,” she said, “but my husband won’t hear of it. He says he’s too old, and I guess if I were his age, I’d feel the same way. He’s almost 46.”
“Is that so?” I said. “Age is an important consideration.”
I smiled to myself. I watched my dark-haired, slender husband as he moved gracefully over the ice. I knew that the other dads—and moms–would complain the next day about aches and pains, but my husband wouldn’t. He had them all fooled. At 50, he was easily the ‘old man’ on the ice, but no one could tell. In fact, if anyone thought about it, they would have assumed he was at least ten years younger than he actually age.
As for me, I was wearing jeans–not leggings, not yoga pants, not maternity pants. If you are a woman and you have had a baby, you understand the significance of that statement. You know that you have turned some magical post-partum corner when you can fit back into your pre-pregnancy clothes. It doesn’t matter if it happens the day after you give birth or two years later. It’s a victory. You have proof that you are still you and that your life will settle into a new normalcy. You will adjust. You are adjusting.
Taking your newborn out into the world, a first public appearance is a milestone, too, and I experienced both that day. So, seeing those first snowflakes and knowing that they were the beginning of a storm did not rattle me. I was happy, joyful, peaceful.
By the time we arrived home, the snow was falling much harder. We filled our bathtubs with water in preparation of the storm. When we lose electricity, we also lose water—and heat and landline telephone. Yet, the filling of the bathtubs was really the only storm prep I remember doing. Perhaps we did more. Perhaps not.
I’m an optimist by nature and so I am always sure that nothing will be as bad as predicted—especially the weather. Sure, we would probably lose power, but only for a day or two. As for the snow, we live in Maryland, not Alaska or even New England or the Mid-West. When it snows in Maryland, the ground is only covered for a day or two. Truly cold weather, like truly hot weather, never lasts very long—not in Maryland.
But it snowed and snowed and snowed. By the time it stopped snowing, we had almost three feet of snow on the ground. And we were, as expected, without power. I put an extra blanket on our bed and the children slept with us. I still felt happy, joyful, peaceful–even when I could see my breath. I told my daughter to pretend that we were pioneers living in a log cabin. I told her that all the people I loved the most were warm and safe in our bed, and I thought about those first snowflakes hitting our windshield the day before.
Then, the house got colder and colder, and my husband said, “Let’s be realistic about this. Power probably won’t be restored for at least a week.”
“No way,” I argued. “A week? You can’t be serious.”
“Look outside. We have three feet of snow on the ground. You can’t even see our cars. You have to figure the entire region looks like this. They can’t restore power because they can’t get to the downed power-lines. We need to do something.”
In the background, we heard the low-pitched hum of our neighbor Mike’s generator. He wasn’t home, but he has one of those built-in systems. Whenever his power is out for more than 90 seconds, it cuts on. If he were home, we would wade through the waist-deep snow with three very long extension cords plugged into one another, knock on his door, and ask him if we could plug in. He would say, “Yes, of course.” After the storm, we would repay him with a bottle of brandy or a case of beer.
But he wasn’t home. Could we just assume he would say, “Yes” to our request and plug into an exterior socket? His house is a lot newer than ours, and so surely he has exterior sockets, right?
Then, my husband said that we had a small, gasoline-powered generator in our barn, and he would go get it. He fashioned a sled to transport the generator using some rope and hard plastic tub, and headed out our front door.
The barn, a 1700 square-foot, unfinished, wood-frame storage shed, lies no more than 70 feet south of our house, but the land between the house and the barn is heavily wooded and sharply sloped. He had cut a zig-zagging pathway from barn to house, but in the snow with heavily equipment in tow, it would be too difficult to maneuver. It made more sense to walk the 100 or so feet towards the street, then 70 or so gently sloping feet towards the barn drive and then follow the drive for another 100 or so feet.
None of this seemed too treacherous to me. He was just walking on our property, not terribly far at all. The snow was deep, but he would be okay. Again, that’s the optimist in me. I don’t believe anything bad will ever happen to anyone I love, despite the fact that I have been wrong about that quite a lot. This is a reoccurring theme in my life and one I frequently confuse with faith—if you follow my blog, look for it again because it bites me in the butt often.
And when I am not being an optimist, I am being a historian. I am convinced that nothing we face in our present-day lives is as difficult or as dangerous as the hardships our ancestors faced on a day-to-day basis. Whenever I have to do something I don’t want to do, I think, “Oh, for God’s sake! You are not being asked to dig your own well!” or “No electricity? Big deal! People survived for eons without artificial light. You can do it for a day or two.”
So, you can see why despite the seriousness of the situation, I wasn’t terrible concerned.
He was gone a long time–about an hour, I thought, but I wasn’t sure. I looked out the bedroom window on the second floor and saw him struggling against the deep snow as he made his way towards the house. He looked like a man walking against a strong tide. “Good God! That looks hard,” I thought. “It’s like he can hardly move.”
He looked up at me. He smiled. He waved. I assumed his struggle was all for show. He knew I was watching and he was playing with me. I smiled. I waved, and I went back to whatever I was doing.
Time lapsed, but I don’t know how much. I went downstairs and found the front door open and my guy laying face-down on the floor. I ran to him. He was conscious. He said he was tired and he needed help. He wanted me to remove his boots. I rolled him over onto his back, and I removed his boots and the quilted coveralls he was wearing over jeans and a thermal t-shirt. He was drenched in sweat—not a little wet, but as if he had just stepped out of the shower.
I lifted him and helped him to the couch. “Do you want water? I can get you water.”
“No, I’m just tired. Let me take a nap.”
“Are you sure you don’t want water? You are white. Like a sheet of paper.”
White. Like a sheet of paper. My husband is part Latino and part Irish. He takes after the South American side of his family, and so, he is not “white.” He’s more of a golden color. In the dead of winter, his skin is the color of mine when I have a tan. When I said that he was white, he knew he was very sick. I didn’t.
“Call an ambulance,” he said.
Yes, how embarrassing. My husband was having a heart attack and I didn’t know it. He knew. Remember, I AM an optimist. Nothing bad ever happens to anyone I know–at least nothing so bad that it can’t be fixed with a glass of water. I know this about myself and in the past, I have worried that an emergency might happen and I might not recognize it, but because I am not a worrier, that thought has always been a fleeting one. Optimism, naivety, fool-hardiness, denial–whatever you want to call it–has helped me keep a cool head in some pretty dangerous situations. What other people perceive as bravery in me, I know is just my inability to believe that anything bad will happen.
Also, to be fair, the only other time I have ever witnessed a heart attack, the victim clutched his chest and fell to the ground in convulsions. It was what one sees in movies.
I grabbed my cell phone. No bars and a dying battery. I walked out the front door and towards the street where I could usually get a cell phone signal. The snow was so deep and I tried to walk just in the path my husband had cut on his attempt to retrieve the generator.
One bar. I hit 9-1-1. The dispatcher asked my location and then put me through to a second dispatcher.
“Fire. Ambulance. Or Police.”
“I’m dispatching an ambulance to your location. Describe your emergency.”
I did. My husband was extremely tired, sweaty, and white after moving a generator.
“Is he conscious?”
“Is he having difficulty breathing?”
“Is he experiencing chest pains?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.” Um, or at least he hadn’t mentioned chest pains. Or difficulty breathing. And I couldn’t run into the house to ask because I would drop the call.
“Does he have a history of heart disease? High blood pressure? High cholesterol?”
No, no, and no.
“A family history of heart disease? High blood pressure? High cholesterol?”
Yes, yes, and yes.
“An EMS is on the way.”
And now, of course, there was another lapse in time. I cannot tell you how long it was before the paramedics arrived. As is always the case, once you’ve dialed 911, time moves differently. Two minutes feels like two hours. We live less than a mile from the volunteer fire department that houses the EMS unit and yet, I was waiting and waiting, pacing the floor, checking on my husband, my sleeping baby, and my daughter who was quietly playing. I looked out the window. They used no sirens or maybe they did. I don’t remember, but then, they were the only vehicle on the road—besides the snow plow they were following. When I heard them coming, I ran out into the snow again to make sure they came to our house and not to our barn. That’s the thing about GPS. If you put in our address, it will take you not to our house, but to our barn. Remember that should you ever visit.
Upon seeing me, one paramedic got out with a snow shovel and began clearing the walkway. Two others loaded equipment onto their shoulders and began that journey from the road to my house. Their steps were high and heavy and I could tell that they were exerting so much extra force as they fought against the deep snow to make it to the house.
I led them into the living room. My husband was still on the couch and conscious. One paramedic began interviewing him about what had happened while he took his vitals. He shaved spots on his chest and attached wires. The other paramedic interviewed me in the next room. By now, I was holding my baby and my daughter had stopped playing to watch the excitement from a distance. I had told her that daddy was sick and some people were coming to help him. She didn’t seem frightened, but she was curious, and yet, taking the whole situation seriously enough to stay out of their way.
“What happened?” “How old is he?” “Describe his overall health.” “History of heart disease?” “What has he eaten today?” “Any allergies?”
Finally, one of them said, “Ma’am, your husband is showing signs of cardiac arrest. We need to get him to the hospital. Do you have any blankets we can wrap him in?”
I went to the cedar chest and pulled out two wool blankets and a pink and white Laura Ashley comforter I bought when I first graduated from college. Once they wrapped him, they put him on a stretcher. Around this time, the guy who had been clearing the walkway reached the house. The three paramedics—all strong, young men—carried my husband out the front door and down the path. They slipped in the snow. They lost their gripe. They dropped him twice. My husband is not a big man. He weighs about 150 lbs. These paramedics weren’t incompetent. They were doing the best they could under dire circumstances, but I wondered how they would have managed getting a larger person into their vehicle that day.
Before they left, one of the paramedics turned to me, and said, “We can get you and your children out of here, too, ma’am.”
That never occurred to me—that I could go with them. I stared at him blankly. What would I do with a baby and a toddler in a snowed-in hospital? “No,” I said. “We will be fine right here.” We will be fine right here? What the hell? Maybe I was being optimistic again. Maybe I thought the sun would suddenly come out and melt all the snow and power would be magically restored that very hour?
As the ambulance drove away slowly, it occurred to me that I was with two very young children in the aftermath of the worst snowstorm in recent history. My only link to the outside world was a cell phone with a dying battery and a weak signal. My car was under three feet of snow. I couldn’t go anywhere. Yet, I couldn’t stay at home. How would the hospital contact me? Certainly, I would be getting a call. He would be okay. It would be a false alarm and I would need to pick him up from the hospital, right? RIGHT?
Oh, I should have gone with the paramedics, but no sense second guessing myself.
And I was still recovering from a c-section. Yeah, that rule about not lifting anything heavier than the baby? Hmm, I had lifted a grown man to his feet and helped him onto the couch. I had run through waist-high snow to call 911. I had run through the snow again to flag down the EMS. Doctor’s orders don’t matter in an emergency. You do what you have to do. I’ve always known that.
I called my husband’s parents—it was the right thing to do. If my child is ever taken away in an ambulance, I want to be called. His mother answered the phone. “Mom, this is an emergency. Put Dad on the phone so that I only have to say this once.” She did. “Anthony has had a heart attack. They have taken him to the hospital. The children and I are at home, but I am going to the hospital. I will call you when I know more. Please, stay home. The beltway is closed and the roads are dangerous. Do you understand?” I am going to the hospital? No idea how I’m getting there, but no need to discuss that with them.
I called his sister. That, too, seemed like the right thing to do. “We are coming to get you,” she said. “Unless you have a helicopter, that’s not possible,” I answered. “I will call you when I know more.”
I called Pastor Nicki. “Lift us in prayer. Have everyone lift us in prayer,” I said.
“I will find someone to come get you,” she said.
“That’s not possible,” I said.
I needed to find help. Mike wasn’t home, but maybe some other neighbors stayed. Maybe we weren’t the only ones foolish enough to think we could sit out such a storm at home. I wrapped my son in an extra blanket and put him back in his bassinet. I dressed myself in my husband’s quilted coveralls, the ones I had peeled from his body earlier. Even damp, they were surprisingly warm. I told my daughter that I was going to look for help. She was to stay in the house with her brother, but not to pick him up. I would be back soon.
Yes, I left a newborn in the care of a two-year-old, but what else could I possibly do? Strap them to my back?
Fortunately, I saw Tim from across the street right away. He was shoveling furiously. I yelled to him and waved my arms in the air. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “I saw the ambulance.”
“No, nothing is okay! Anthony had a heart attack! They’ve taken him to the hospital!” I yelled back.
“I’m shoveling to you!”
He cleared the snow from my car and told me that he thought the main roads were now clear—proof that he, too, is an optimist. He and his wife offered to watch my children while I went to the hospital. It was a generous offer, but no, I couldn’t leave them. I didn’t know when I would be returning.
Just then, Pastor Nicki’s husband arrived at my house. “I’ve come to get you. We have electricity at our house, and we are close to the hospital. We will babysit and I can drive you to and from the hospital as you need.”
Problem solved. Prayers answered. Amen.
I went inside. I packed quickly. It was getting dark. My daughter began to cry. “Hey, no crying right now. You can cry tomorrow, but right now, crying is not allowed.”
The roads were a miserable mess, but Dave was a skilled driver. First, we went to the hospital where I was told that I could not bring my children onto the intensive care unit where my husband was now staying. And so, Dave drove me to his house where I got the children settled in, and then, he drove me back to the hospital. I remember putting on earrings and tinted lip balm before going into husband’s hospital room. Earrings and tinted lip balm because I wanted to dress up some, look nice for my man. After all, I was still wearing the quilted coveralls and snow boots.
When I walked into his room, he was sitting up in bed, eating dinner and watching TV. Color had returned to his face and he looked healthy. In the time that it took me to get to the hospital, he had had surgery and recovered. “Time has gone by so quickly today, “ he said.
For me, it had not. For me, a lifetime had passed since that morning when he announced that he would get the generator from the barn. Time for me had been going very slowly, almost standing still.
He told me that his heart attack had actually taken place in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He told me that the ambulance had slid off the road twice en route. Once in the hospital, two stents were placed in his heart to open the valves. A third would be needed at a later date.
The hospital staff looked more worn and weary than my husband, the heart patient. Some of them were working a second and third shift. They had been snowed-in while at work and their replacements had not been able to make it to the hospital. Yet, they were there, saving lives.
The cardiologist who had installed the stents asked to speak with me. He wanted to make sure that I understood the procedure and to answer any questions I had. He looked and sounded like the actor/comedian Ray Romano, but what I remember most is the story he told me.
He said that the hospital puts him up in a hotel whenever a major storm strikes, and he just sits
This is what all that snow looked like more than a week after it fell. The deer are there to provide scale. And they are really pretty.
in the room reading, watching TV, and trying to sleep until he is needed. With this particular storm, he was a little depressed. “I resented being there. I wanted to be at home with my family like everybody else, and I was questioning whether I had chosen the right career path. I prayed to God to give me a sign that I was where I was supposed to be. Then, the phone rang. It was the hospital. They told me that a car was on the way. I was needed in surgery. I came in. I treated your husband, installed the stents, and he’s going to make it. My prayer was answered. I know I’m doing what I do for a reason.”
Problem solved. Prayer answered. Amen.
I still get teary-eyed when I think about his testimony, his incredible witness of an answered prayer, and the remarkable faith he showed in sharing it with me. When you share a story of prayer with a near-stranger, you never know how it will be received. You do it anyway because you believe.
The next few days are a bit of a blur. The children and I stayed with Pastor Nicki and Dave. They babysat, and he shuttled me to and from the hospital.
I called my in-laws again. I called my family. I called friends. Everyone with whom I spoke reacted the same way. Shock. “But he is so young.” “But he is so healthy.” I heard those two sentences a lot, and I had to agree. When a relatively young, thin, non-smoker has a heart attack, everyone is surprised. Everyone becomes aware that it could happen to them—or someone they love.
Power was restored the day my husband was released from the hospital. Once we were home, members of my club brought us food—every day for the next month. My neighbor shoveled our walkway. Anthony’s colleague brought a Bobcat to our house and removed all the snow from behind our cars. My friend and college roommate came from New Jersey and did the grocery shopping for me. Others babysat. Daily, we received phone calls and emails from friends all over the country telling us that they were thinking about us and praying for us. I had never before been the recipient of such an out-pouring of love and concern.
Four years later, I am still moved by those whose actions bolstered us. It’s overwhelming—and whenever anyone uses the word overwhelming, you know that they know their words are inadequate. As I stated in the beginning, I don’t write well enough to do this feeling of sincere gratitude justice.
We were reminded of how blessed we were. The stories of people who were not as fortunate swirled around us. Remember that friend who held my son at the ice skating rink? Her brother-in-law had a heart attack, too. The paramedics could not get to him in time. He died. Everyone knew someone whose snow tale did not have a happy ending. How and why were we so blessed?
As for that third stent that would be needed at a later date, it was decided that it wasn’t necessary after all. Medication, monitoring, and minor life-style changes were prescribed in lieu of an additional procedure.
Four years later, it’s all so surreal. Did that happen? Really? I think about snowflakes hitting the windshield as we left the skating rink, and I feel happy, joyful, peaceful, and blessed.