When Self-Care Isn’t Enough (Please Tell Me This Isn’t a Heart Attack)

doctor holding stethoscope

Being wired up to an EKG in the Emergency Room wasn’t exactly my idea of a good start to the holiday weekend, especially after the last couple of weeks I’ve had. But knowing when and how to seek professional medical treatment is a critical component of a comprehensive self-care practice.

Life is hard sometimes. For all of us. Just in different ways.

I’m Too Young To Have a Heart Attack (Right?)

Around 2 AM I woke up with intense pain in my chest that felt like I’d been shot by an arrow. And judging by the pain between my shoulder blades, it seemed like a reasonable explanation. I winced as I sat up in bed, noticing almost immediately that it was hard to breathe. I could only take half breaths before the pain became unbearable.

Assuming it was nothing more than an exceptionally bad case of heartburn, I quickly enlisted a few home remedies:

  • I adjusted my pillow and repositioned myself in bed. No relief.
  • I sat upright for a few minutes. Still no change.
  • I stood up, walked around, and did a few stretches on my yoga mat. Nope, the pain persisted.
  • I drank a few sips of baking soda water. It didn’t even touch the pain.
  • Finally, I took a Pepto Bismol and watched the clock.

But after 15 minutes of waiting for even the slightest sign of relief, the pain only got worse.

And when I felt an odd, stinging pain in my jaw, a warm blanket of fear crept in.

When Should I Panic?

I started to panic. I remembered the Just a Little Heart Attack video. You know the one: Where the super mom ignores all the warning signs of a heart attack because she’s too busy doing it all? I saw her vividly, fluttering around the kitchen preparing lunch for the kids, jotting down to-do’s in her planner…and then lying on the floor calling 911.

The pain intensified, so I finally woke my husband and asked him to drive me to the Emergency Room. The fear in my voice as I pleaded with him to drive faster and hurry wasn’t reassuring to either of us. This was my first trip to the ER as an adult. My last visit was about 35 years ago, when I was treated for anaphylaxis after a yellow jacket bee sting.

When we arrived I walked, albeit slowly, toward the sliding glass doors that glared back at me like a spotlight, and all I could think was Why the hell is my purse so heavy? It felt like I was lugging a bag of bricks. Why do I carry so much crap around?

The ER doors opened.

Welcome to the ER

After muttering the words “chest pain” to the woman at the front desk, I was quickly ushered into a room where a throng of uniformed hospital employees with expressionless faces began to follow their triage protocol. (It was sort of like watching a Subway sandwich artist in action.)

Before I knew it, I was undressed, gowned, and shivering on a cold hospital bed, while an IV line dangled from my left arm and a pulse oximeter was snapped tightly onto my right finger. Seconds later, EKG electrodes were placed all over my body while a nurse, who stared intently at her computer screen, asked me a barrage of questions.

Having worked for a decade as a consultant for more than 50 nursing homes, I know what scurrying medical professionals look like. And all the buzzing only added to my fears. I kept watching the faces of the staff, hoping to interpret the meaning behind their glances. What do they see? What do they know?

The doctor arrived and I held my breath as I waited to hear what the tests revealed, exhaling only after I heard the words “no evidence of a heart attack.” EKG, cardiac enzymes, and xrays…all normal.


But that didn’t change the fact that I was still in a lot of pain. Then, my afternoon food selections flooded back to me: tomato sauce, coffee, chocolate, cheese, and wine—a list of foods that I routinely rattled off hundreds of times as a registered dietitian while counseling patients with GERD. It was the perfect storm for heartburn.

But I had never experienced anything more than mild heartburn a handful of times a year, and I had no idea the onset of severe symptoms could be so sudden—and so painful.

Well, hello esophagitis. I wish I could say it’s nice to meet you.

It’s Hell Getting Old

As the reality of what happened began to sink in, I could hear my father’s wise words: “It’s hell getting old.”


Evidently, reflux and I are now befri’s, judging by the giant, ugly triangle-shaped pillow that now adorns my bed. I’d say I’m adjusting to my forties quite well, wouldn’t you?

The scary thing about chest pain is that it’s either gravely serious or it isn’t. And it’s tough to know the difference.

This, dear friends, is self-care. (I told you it wasn’t just about manicures and spa days, didn’t I?) It’s about doing our best even though we can’t control everything that happens to us. And it’s about doing our best to heal when our bodies don’t cooperate with our life plans. Self-care practices are designed to change with us as our lives evolve. When our needs change, so do our routines.

But, perhaps most importantly, self-care helps us recognize when to seek professional help.

What would you do if you thought you were having a heart attack?

Learn when to seek help here.

Are you ready to design (or redesign) your self-care practice? Download the Self-Care Assessment now:

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