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There is a weight on my chest. Right between my breasts, pressing on my breastbone -- as though the atmosphere ripped open a shaft from the heavens to me and the sky poured down onto this one spot. Observant, detached, slowing down, breathing carefully, I think with my body.
"I am having a heart attack," I say to Zoe, my yoga teacher.
I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lying on my back on Zoe's clean, polished floor looking at white walls and gleaming wooden window frames. The pressure on my chest has become very specific. It is bearing down now and revolving like a vise, cranking my chest tighter and tighter. I feel no pain, just curiosity. It is the alert, still curiosity of an animal at the sound of a footfall in the woods, of a child beckoned by a frightening stranger, of a bird that senses a change in the atmosphere before a storm hits. The pressure, the twisting continues. It is not going away. I am beginning to sweat.
Zoe is bending over me because she's been helping me improve a gentle yoga pose, Reclining Maricyasana. The idea, she says, is that with the shoulders relaxed and arms outstretched receptively, the heart is released and can ascend to radiance. It is one of yoga's warming poses.
But I am cold. I look at my hands. They are marble white. I sluggishly realize that Zoe has helped me sit up; I suddenly feel her small, strong hand supporting my back. Now I have the sensation of cold rivulets coursing down my arms, millions of discrete trickles running from my shoulders, over my elbows, to my wrists. Nausea rises.
"I am having a heart attack," I say again, this time with the calm, clinical finality that comes from absolute knowledge deep within my body.
For only a moment, my mind protests. Give it a minute. It must be a muscle pull. But Zoe does not second-guess me. Instead, she trusts the voice of my body and asks me what I want her to do.
"I want you to call 911. Tell them I need a cardiac team. Tell them to take me to Mount Auburn Hospital. My doctor is Barbara Spivak. I need a cardiologist waiting for me. Something is terribly wrong."
The icy rivers flow to my marble hands. Take charge, take charge, take charge.
The 911 guys lumber in with armfuls of equipment -- thundering male steps echoing into a serene white room with three women in tights sprawled on a polished floor. Quickly assessing what is needed, they joke that when they got the call they thought "yoga class" was code for a cult. I laugh. Everything is fine if I can laugh. They would be stern if something were wrong. I am aware of how big they are, how slender my classmates. I am amused by the space men take up and reminded of my husband in the bathroom, obliviously standing in front of the mirror I was using while happily telling me a funny story about his trip to the dump. I like these guys.
They hook me up to machines. They put a tiny pill under my tongue. They ask me how I feel. Not great yet, but better because they are here, though it's harder to look inside my body when they distract me with light bantering. I am feeling happy in this moment. It must be a muscle pull.
I laugh with them and ask, "So, what do you guys think?"
"We think you're a very lucky lady."
Whew. Take two aspirin...
But the biggest one is all business now. He finishes his response gently, firmly.
"You're coming with us to the hospital."
They strap me into a chair and will not let me move by myself. I think they are cute and want to show off how strong they are. I feel cold terror suffuse my body, taking over as the tingling trickles flowing down my arms retreat. Or am I too scared to feel them?
Two men carry me out the door backwards. It is the summer view I had as a girl riding the tailgate of Dad's woody station wagon, the same view I had as a young woman teaching in the Swiss Alps, nauseated from sitting backwards on a train and vowing never to do that again. As they load me into the van, I wave to a child and an old man, reassuring them that everything will be all right. Zoe's face is small and serious on the steps. I thank her and wonder at my self-possession. But I am simply here, in the arms of these funny strong men. Surrendering my independence, I feel a rush of relaxation.
Or am I deciding that I am relaxed when what is actually happening is that my body is failing me? What does that feel like? How would I know?
The men in the front seat are calling in to the hospital. I strain to hear what is said, muffled code words through glass. The big guy is still with me, administering more tests, asking me over and over how I feel. I no longer know. I desperately want to tell him that every test makes me feel better, but it does not, no matter how hard I try to please him. He shows no elation or disappointment. I can't read him. How am I?
I was dying of a massive heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI). Between my first sensation of pressure and the rescue team's arrival, only ten minutes went by. Those ten minutes -- an eternity -- saved my life. I relive every second again and again. I think of all the places I could have been instead of within the serene walls of a yoga studio.
I was your typical harried workingwoman, a partner in a small but prominent corporate training company. May 12 had been a Monday like any other -- better than most because there was no packed suitcase behind my office door ready to be loaded into the four o'clock cab to Logan Airport, flung into another rental car in the evening darkness, and unzipped in another hotel in another strange city of blinking lights, with highways lacing it like a sneaker. As it happened, a client had called on Friday and switched our meeting to a phone conference later in the week. So on this Monday, instead of flying to Detroit, I was going to my yoga class and sleeping in my own bed next to my husband, the love of my life.
What if, bored and imprisoned in an airline seat a few months before, I hadn't picked up the in-flight magazine and read an article on heart attacks that described many of the symptoms I would experience? What if my Detroit client had not changed our meeting to a phone conference? What if I'd taken that one last call and been sitting in rush-hour traffic instead of in my yoga class focusing on my breathing, deeply attuned to my body?
What if I had reacted to my body's signals with denial and hubris? What if I had not acknowledged death in the moment it visited me?
I would be dead. And if I had died, I would not be here. I would not be looking up the lake at another spring, one year later, from my study in our old house in Maine. I would not be seeing our beloved Mount Washington across the border in New Hampshire, with snow lingering in Tuckerman Ravine like icing on the cake saved for last. I would not be listening to water lapping at the peninsula -- each year an exciting new sound after the silence of ice stretched shore to shore during Maine's long winter. I would not be hearing the wind chimes on the northwest corner of the house heralding several days of blue skies and sparkling water. I would not hear the loons or the mourning doves or the tree swallows busily nesting in the fantasy birdhouse, made by friends for our wedding, with a brass heart for a weathervane.
Every day I am aware of my good fortune and regard each moment of life as the exquisite miracle that it is. I am also aware that before IT happened, I had lived each day as best I could -- often too intensely, but always fully participating in life. As I write that, I pause. True? I will always wonder what I could have done differently. Did I appreciate life enough? Could I have prevented IT from happening?
With time, I am learning that the physical why is not important. That ride across Cambridge in the rescue vehicle with my burly boyfriends was the beginning of my journey of the heart in both the physical and spiritual sense, because I believe that to heal the body you must heal the spirit. With time, I have been able to see my catastrophic heart attack as the gift that it was.
Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Daw Heffernan