Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Vegan Heart Attack

Plush heart cell given to me by a friend. Complete with heart beat sound.

Exactly five months ago, I suffered a massive heart attack and almost died.  It happened at the beginning of a run, before I'd taken more than 20 steps, and what caused it still remains largely mysterious, a source of debate among the various cardiologists I've seen since then, the subject of a paper delivered at a convention by one of them.  The facts are these: I am a 43-year-old woman, a long-time long-distance runner, a long-time vegan.  I am a combination of things that constitute exactly the kind of person who never has a heart attack, who, at least ostensibly, has no risk factors whatsoever.

The kind of person who should be a poster child for all the things that one should do to avoid having a heart attack.

I had a clot.  It was huge.  An MRI and ultrasounds of my legs and heart revealed it to be the singular clot in my entire body.  I have a paten foramen ovale, a very common birth defect that enables blood to flow between the left and right atria.  It's something I discovered after the heart attack when the doctor pumped fizzy water into a vein in my arm and we watched on the ECG screen as the bubbles cross from one side to the other.

A hole in my heart.

This is my heart attack

One specialist tells me to fix it; another says not to.  I know that I need a third opinion, but so far, I haven't gotten around to getting one -- and this is in large part due to the fact that I don't believe that anyone else will know anything further.  I have grown to believe that none of us, no matter how well trained, knows much about what makes us work and what makes us break, particularly when things  break in the wrong people at the wrong time.  All is so speculative and unclear as to drive one into a complete existential mid-life crisis, which is exactly where I find myself.  I'm an English professor.  I study language and metaphor. The fact that I have a hole in my heart seems entirely right to me.  It's the space that I've never been able to fill; it's the endless tangible ache that I feel for everything nonhuman (and human) that suffers.

The surgeon went in through the femoral artery in my right leg.  I was awake the whole time, having been airlifted from the regional hospital in Western North Carolina near the university where I work, which is where I was when I had the heart attack.  I begged the doctor not to make me ride in the helicopter, so terrified I am of flying; he said I wouldn't make it if I went in an ambulance.  He gave me an Atavan to help ease my nerves. In the hospital in Asheville, the surgeon shaved my pubic hair; I was embarrassed because he was incredibly cute.  He talked to me throughout the surgery, and a screen displayed what was happening.  I had to turn my head to the left to watch the movie of the angioplasty.  At one point, the doctor laughed at something I said.  I have no idea what it was.

After, I hemorrhaged and nearly bled out through the hole in my leg.  I nearly died a second time, and the next day, the people -- nurses and doctors -- who must have met me before, during, and after the surgery, came by to tell me that they couldn't believe I'd survived.  This is a memory I have returned to often since October 25: that no one believed that I hadn't died, that I should have died.  That my life after October 25 constitutes a complete surprise.

Flowers from friends and family (notice stealthy cat foot just behind the yellow ones)

The first nightmare that I had happened about two weeks after I got out of the hospital.  I was on a gurney, heading into a dark tunnel. It's not a very inventive metaphor, I'm afraid, but it must be a universal one.  I knew that if I closed my eyes, I would be dead and that there would be nothing more.  I fought and fought to stay awake in the dream.  And then I woke up.  I'm suffering from PTSD, an apparent after effect of so much trauma, and one that's only now being linked to heart attack survivors.

Over the course of my life, my body has undergone serious trauma, most (but not all) of it at my own hands. I had an eating disorder for over a decade, and I have consistently ingested into my body (often in large quantities) things that have sped up or slowed down my heart, damaged as it already was by the fact that I existed in a nearly starved state for years and years. I feel a responsibility to my heart now, but I refuse to feel at fault for what happened. I feel sad for my heart, the small animal that I've seen on the ECG screen several times since the heart attack, part of it frozen and immobile, likely forever, from the lack of blood it received between the attack and the time that the clot was dissolved. Valves opening and closing, moving like the legs of some bear cub running and running towards some unreachable embrace.

Carol Adams came to WCU a week and a half after I had the heart attack.  I'd invited her, had arranged for her visit, and I showed up, my heart PVC-ing like crazy, to introduce her prior to her talk on her book The Sexual Politics of MeatI wasn't supposed to go back to work until after Thanksgiving.  After I introduced her, I thought I might have another heart attack.  No one knows this.  My heart attack has been a study in its own sexual politics, all the literature given to me in the hospital clearly aimed at men in mid-life or older; the first meal I was offered when I awoke the next morning was a bowl of beef broth.  The disconnect between who I am, the food I eat (and don't), and the reality that beef and foods made from animals are more likely to cause heart attacks than anything I've ever done all have constituted the grim irony with which I continue to view my circumstances.

I worry that I've somehow betrayed veganism, that people will read this and think that it's because I am vegan that this happened.  And maybe they'd be right.

But I doubt it.

So often, when I wake up from the nightmares that are now becoming less and less frequent, I want to hold my heart in my hands and comfort it the way I would any other abused or harmed or suffering animal.  And this is the way I'll be able to make sense of what's happened to me, even if the surgeons can't, to care for the creature that keeps running towards me, wounded and vulnerable.

Detail from a portrait I painted of my heart