After Your Husband Has a Heart Attack

The aftershocks come in waves and they are not proportional to the severity of the event.

Rob’s heart attack barely rocked the cardiologist’s Richter scale, but it lifted us up off our foundations and set us down again hard. I am left feeling slightly askew and wondering about the direction of the path I thought was straight forward and relatively paved.

In the last six months, I’d prepared for a new career path that focused more on the real world rather than the innerscape my writer self shelters herself in. I’d become more or less content with writing for the Internet and questioned the purpose and practicality of finishing the memoir – or even going back to a fictionalized account of how I ended up in such a different life from the one I’d imagined a bit more than a decade ago.

“It’s funny how we end up where we are,” Rob mused as we sat sipping tea on the back deck after his first long stroll yesterday afternoon. “I didn’t ever really picture myself a heart attack survivor or even having one at all.”

I can’t say I haven’t pictured myself a youngish widow again. I am wired for “what if” and have buried everyone I know and love dozens of times as my mind grapples with far-flung scenarios they way other people plan their weeks. But I will admit that I have grown comfortably complacent enough to suppose that Rob and I will celebrate many a double-digit anniversary together.

“You really freaked out on me,” he pointed out later in the day.

I can’t tell if he is disappointed or surprised by this. As I told the older girls while I paced the waiting area during the hour of time we had no idea where he was or if he’d sustained any unplanned damage during his angiogram,

“Grace under pressure is not me, so I hope you weren’t looking for it.”

Indeed, it took me well over two months to adjust to my late husband’s death sentence and the dementia that came with it. Which is not to say that I lost my presence of mind or that I was unable to tend to the details, I function – sometimes at quite a shockingly high altitude, but I am sharper than recently honed blade and my Sagittarian bent for action is idling constantly when not actually propelling me.

“I didn’t know what was going on or where you were,” I said, again.

“Well, were you expecting them to hand me back to you in an urn?” he asked with a smile.

“Yes,” I said. “I had no idea what had happened and no one seemed interested in clueing me in. All I needed was a ‘we were able to fix him during the angiogram but he needs to stay overnight and he’s being admitted, go get something to eat and check with admittance for his room number in an hour.’ Honestly, I would have been a totally different person had someone been bright enough to do that.”

Waiting though did give me time to reassess, and sometimes this is not reactionary as much as it is necessary redirection.

One of the things that was painfully clear as I paced was that I was in no way prepared for a disaster.

Last summer when Rob went into the ER for an abscess, he prepared a file for me with all the pertinent information I would need “just in case” – and no, it’s nice to have him leap to morbid conclusions the same as I do. It makes me feel less of a dark, twisted freak.

But in the interim, the file vanished beneath piles of paper which in turn were scattered thither and yon as we moved our lives from one room to another to stay ahead of reno work.

I was also painfully aware of legalities that still haven’t been completed like Dee’s adoption, my being on the house title and some banking details that would give me access without having to wait on lawyers and courts.

And we’re still fairly non-committal on the whole “last wishes and remains disposal” thing despite numerous conversations.

And yes, this is what races about in my brain in a medical emergency. While all of you superior humans focus on the positive and can readily put hands on rose-coloured specs, I start compiling lists for my worst case scenario action item agenda.

I find myself checking Rob’s colouring and watching his breathing. I ask him constantly how he is feeling and match up my exterior check with his answer. I am always trying to get him to rest.

“You almost died,” I told him last night as I curled up on his lap while he waited for the data recovery program to finish snatching Edie’s life off her barely breathing hard drive.

“I did not,” he countered, a bit annoyed.

“Well,” I said, not ready to let it go, “it could have been much worse. You did ignore your symptoms all week.”

“There’s nothing like waking up with sharp chest pains,” he said.

“And if you hadn’t, you  would have gone to work,” I said, “and anything could have happened. What if we’d been at the family reunion? Miles from medical help.”

“But we weren’t,” he said, “and it was hard to know what was really wrong before.”

“I told you even before Thursday that your symptoms could be heart attack related,” I said.

“When?”

“Repeatedly, ” I insisted. ” And I was right.”

“It’s important for you to be right?”

“Yes.”

And it is. I have been down this road of scoffing, pooh-poohing husband with scary and persistent physical maladies.

“If I had experienced chest pains while we were camping,” I pointed out, “there is no way we wouldn’t have packed up and headed to the ER.”

He couldn’t refute me. Rob is hawkish about my health but very much like the typical man when it comes to his own.

I am uncertain about how I feel. The medical professions thus far appear blase with the discharging cardiologist telling Rob he can go back to work in a couple of weeks (a “couple” means “two” where I come from). He handed Rob a recipe of prescriptions – some of which make zero sense. They want him to take medication for lowering cholesterol even though his levels are fine and in spite of the very serious side effects of statins and the recent studies that show there is no link between high cholesterol (which Rob doesn’t have, or did I mention that) and heart disease. Apparently in the Alberta medical world, heart attack treatment is one size fits all.

And even Rob is agitating to work from home at least via his computer and the phone because he is in charge of some major projects with multi-million dollar scope and long-range implications for his career.

“When did I become a corp whore,” he asked bemusedly just the night before his heart attack.

But I find myself grappling with need to hurry up and finish things – the reno, writing projects and such. Time being suddenly of the essence again in a way it hasn’t for a few years. That’s probably aftershocks. I have a feeling they may continue in unexpectedly ways and waves for a while.

22 responses to “After Your Husband Has a Heart Attack

  1. My boyfriend had a heart attack 6 months ago, at the age of 50. We had just moved to a small town, and he had started a new job. A week after his heart attack, his father passed away unexpectedly. My boyfriend is a completely different person since these two events. He actually broke up with me, and says he doesn’t want any stress in his life, and relationships bring stress. He spends most of his time at work (he loves his job), and when he is home, it’s completely evident that he wants to be alone.

    I feel so completely lost. We moved to this town, and it’s about an hour away from anyone I know. I don’t know anyone, other than him. When I decided to move here with him, I thought it would be a great new start for both of us. I do like the town, but have never felt so alone in my life. I’m so lost, and not sure what to do. The person I fell in love with no longer exists, and I don’t think he’s coming back.

    • Oh, am I sorry. Going through a serious medical event with someone is very scary and especially so far from people who support you.

      My husband went through a transition after this heart event. He was lucky that it was mild and he recovered physically quite quickly and fully but it’s a sobering experience and there’s also the emotional component. Knowing that it could have been worse. Facing your mortality.

      He is fine now and we are fine but it was stressful. Maybe that’s what your boyfriend means? That he can’t sort through his feelings and experience and help you deal with yours? Not fair, I know.

      The important thing is to take care of you. Find some support and outlets for you.

  2. I have also experienced a similar situation as yours… but kind of in reverse…. my husband had a minor heart attack in August… came out of the blue with zero warning signs (he is 54)…. not even pain, just a tightness in his chest and tingling in his hands…. an angioplasty revealed a 95% blockage in his right coronary artery and a stent was put in….. he was given the usual ‘cocktail’ of meds, despite not having ‘symptoms’ for high cholesterol or blood pressure…. heck, he shouldn’t even have that much stress in his life since he works old fashioned ‘banker’s hours’, leaving me to run our company whilst he is home tending to things he likes to do….. gardening, cooking, watching golf… all done now with a bona-fide ‘reason’…. despite his cardiologist telling him this was a good wake-up call and that there is minimal damage.

    You would think that this ‘wake-up call’ would have him embracing life and all it has to offer…. but no, he prefers to play the victim card…. at least to me…. around others, he can be the complete opposite (leaving me thoroughly confused?!)…. I should mention that I have a pacemaker – it’s way too long a story to put the ‘why’ here, but suffice to say, it was my 40th birthday ‘present’…. and I chose to look at everything after that as positive…. and to embrace the life that I had been given a second chance at.

    Not so my husband…. having his own little pity-party and acting like a spoiled 2-year old brat seem more the order of the day….. sigh….. a 2-year old would be given a time-out…. kind of hard to do that with a 54 year old!

    Of course it doesn’t help that my MIL thinks the sun shines out of his backside and gives him every excuse in the book for just taking it easy….. 😉

    Not sure if that will give you or anyone else any insight into dealing with these situations…. but it sure felt good to get it down on paper!

    • Kellie,

      Thanks for sharing your story.

      I honestly don’t know why some people see events like these as wake ups and decide to take positive action and others choose to see doom and give up. Nor do I understand what the motivation is for snuggling up to the victim role but clearly, this works for some people.

      There is really nothing you can do about how your husband chooses to respond to his heart attack. You can only decide how you will respond.

      If he is not suffering any lingering after-effects, you shouldn’t feel or behave as though he is an invalid who needs special care or cater to his wallowing. The easiest thing is to behave as though he never had a heart attack and if his mother wants to do otherwise, let her.

      I know people who enjoy their maladies a bit too much. I simply refuse to play along and I have found over time that this has made them less inclined to play-act for my benefit.

      To me, it sounds like you should be the one that people should be catering to given all the responsibility that is on your shoulders. Perhaps you should look into making your own needs and wants priorities and let you husband take care of himself.

      The aftermath of a traumatic event – whether it turns out well or poorly – though is one that takes a bit of time to sort through. Perhaps your husband will come around but you certainly aren’t obligated to cater to him or even wait for that to happen. Take care of you.

  3. Thank you Anniegirl. I was researching why my husband is so cruel, as he wasn’t before, after his Sept. 14th silent heart attack, and found your blog.
    His silent heart attack happened at 4:00 am and he got up and taught school all day before calling me and saying, in a small breathy voice, I don’t feel good honey. I said do not come home go to ER. And while they were transferring him from one hospital to another he was on the phone telling me how to schedule a substitute teacher for his classroom, as the sirens were wailing in background. They tried three caths, two arms and a leg and gave up when the arteries kept ripping, then they found out part of heart they were trying to help was dead anyway. Then to the doctors surprise and delight he was already bypassing the dead part of his heart with collateral arteries. He was released on the very day of the American Heart Association’s Go Red campaign on the 17th.
    His attack happened a month after me saying, I cannot go through the congestive heart failure again like nine years ago when our boys were young, please go to your doctor. I watched as he gained 30 pounds in a month, like last time, I told him I couldn’t be in the hospital this time, said out of fear.
    As it turned out my 15 year old and I picked up something in the ER and had a virus for the time he was there. My mom in law stayed with him in the hospital for three days this time while I tried to prepare the house for him to come home to.
    Now after a week and a half at home he has become a bear. Everything I say is wrong, is a fight, and my 19 year old is becoming my liaison to the outside world.
    I keep trying to think about things I am grateful we did like traveling when we had a fortune that is now gone, seeing parts of the world some people never get to see, and sharing that with our sons. In August we drove from near Seattle to Freeport, Maine and back seeing sights with our sons and two of their friends, that is when I noticed weight gain in husband.
    I am grateful for the young man Rick was when I met him in college. He treated me so well after my having grown up abused and moved yearly by birth family. I am grateful for our sons. I am grateful for the few friends I have left.
    But the way husband speaks and yells at me now is so not helping us get past the situation. I keep thinking, I have survived ovarian cancer for 14 years, I have raised a 19 and 15 year old despite my husbands alcoholism; which continued after his congestive heart failure and even after a DUI on a trip to Hawaii. I have given away a fortune to schools and programs, knowing that helping others was important to do. I went from teaching school to trading a stock portfolio that was left to us and did it by learning the whole market myself. I have been so strong in the past, why am I not strong now. Feels like living in a shock bubble. I am so lost right now.
    Reading your page today and seeing the responses of others has really helped, thank you.
    There are things in life that we cannot change but to have to take over everything for a husband who could have gone in and this be detected a month ago, when we all begged him to go in, is selfish behavior on his part.
    He keeps saying that I saved his life that day. I just want to start living again. I will turn 50 next year and was going to open my camp for kids at age 50 now that has changed. Trying to give myself this year to recover, regroup and rebuild our family life, just like with a jigsaw puzzle I do not know where to begin. So I just keeping cooking, breathing and loving and trying to be grateful each moment. This may not be coherent but it feels so good to write this morning.
    Bless you and I pray for continued health for you and your family Anniegirl1138!
    Dana Hayden, M.Ed.

    • Sorry to hear of your difficulties. Life is. And we do the best we can. Second chances are not punishments but opportunities though it’s sometimes hard to see that when you are in the thick of it.

      Take care of yourself and thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Please give Rob my greetings and let him know I wish him well and will pray for you and your family. I’m sorry I didn’t stop by earlier to say anything encouraging about your situation, Annie, but you have been in my prayers for the entire weekend.

    All my best to you and yours. And if it matters to you, I know exactly how you feel. I’ve buried all my loved ones repeatedly in my head, and … well, you know.

    All my best again.

    • Thanks, Darc. Very much appreciated.

      I didn’t leave a comment on your latest e-book post, but I really think you have little to lose by giving it a shot. Publish under a pen name if you are worried, but look at it like Konrath does – a business venture – and go for it.

  5. People are blase about heart attacks these days. It’s something you fix. When I started in nursing 40 years ago, people with heart attacks had to lay very still in bed, and weren’t even allowed to brush their own teeth. Yes, things have changed for you guys. This may change your future plans. I would be obsessing, too.

    And you were right. I probably would have hauled him to the hospital when he got gray and sweaty while camping. I don’t think he realizes how lucky his waiting a week didn’t lead to more damage. Men, anyway.

    • I don’t understand folk, who when medical crisis occurs, cease to think about practicalities. I guess all those years on my own, when there was no one to pick up slack, has honed me differently.

  6. And yes, this is what races about in my brain in a medical emergency. While all of you superior humans focus on the positive and can readily put hands on rose-coloured specs, I start compiling lists for my worst case scenario action item agenda.
    Oh, I dunno, Ann. I think some of us do both. 😉

    That said, for me, my second time ’round would probably have me less obsessing about the nitty-gritty, and more about the loss of companionship. I suspect I obsessed about the nitty-gritty type of stuff while I was working on Willis’s estate, and seem to remember bullying Rob about details like wills and paperwork, and stuff. On second thought, maybe not. Maybe I would wonder about grave plots, and phone numbers, and such.

    I sure hear you about the aftershocks: un”reason”able, disproportionate, ever-present and unavoidable would be the keywords, I think. PTSD comes to mind- I used to get flashbacks/ shockwaves when ambulances went past with sirens wailing.

    I hope the universe is gentle with all of you for a bit- I think all of your Rob’s “girls” have been through enough trauma for a while…

    • And you know, are knowledge base is still what we’ve researched ourselves based on what people who’ve had heart attacks and stents put in have told us.

      When patients get their info from each other and WebMD, there are serious problems with the health care profession.

  7. You’re walking on ground that is not familiar to me, so I fear I have nothing useful to offer. But I will say that this part of your exchange made me laugh:

    “It’s important for you to be right?”
    “Yes.”

    I suspect that need to be right has to do at least in part with control. We know that there is so little that we actually can control … and if we ever thought otherwise, widowhood stripped us of all such illusions. So we turn to knowledge, to facts, to something solid so we know what’s going on, even if we can’t control it.

    • It’s just not as scary when you have facts as when you don’t and it’s frustrating – and leads to unnecessary guilt later – when you realize that precious time was lost.

      The 15 months it took me to get Will diagnosed still nags at me. It wouldn’t have saved him if we’d know earlier but it would have prevented a lot of personal damage to body and soul.

  8. having not buried a spouse, i honestly can’t comprehend what the experience would be like, but i can absolutely understand how it would affect your state of mind and behavior when facing a medical crisis with Rob… and i’m still a bit shocked that you were given no information before, during and after he was undergoing angioplasty.

    what surprised me as i read your words? these things do not occur to me. i am truly on my own – to ‘go it alone’. i rely on no one, and no one really relies on me. i still haven’t decided whether this is liberating, frightening, or some combination of the two…

    hoping that you can sort this out and find solid footing again. a world turned upside down isn’t a happy place to be…

    • I never found the go it alone thing to be all that liberating. When I add up the years, I have actually gone it alone as an adult twice as long as I have been partnered in a mutually supportive relationship. Single and independent is overrated from my point of view.

      As we find out more info – someone is bound to tell us something useful soon – and we get on top of things we let slide (and I recognize that everyone does this), I imagine I will settle my internal alarm system.

  9. I went through a similar process when Ken was in the hospital ICU last year for a week in July. I had never considered what such an experience could mean to me, hadn’t even considered such a thing possible. I thought that might happen years from now, not in the prime of our lives. I said just last week to someone that I don’t know what I would have done if Ken had died which, we learned afterward, had been a distinct possibility. I know where all the paperwork is. I just don’t know where my life would be. I have started getting my act together but I am a long way from being able to handle such a loss ~ emotionally, physically, economically, or any other way such a loss affects someone.

    • I deleted my original reply b/c it sounded as though I would be left without resource – which isn’t the case. Financially there would be no worries, but I would be jobless and eventually have to remedy that and the house issue nags b/c the work to be done is beyond simply upkeep though Rob always says that with the housing market around here as it is, a person can sell anything – I have lingering memories of just barely getting out before the housing bubble burst in the U.S.

      I have been single many more years than married and employed far longer than I have been a SAHM. Nothing is beyond me but I definitely feel better having a proactive plan than a catch-up one.

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