The Night I Didn’t Have a Heart Attack But Laughed at a Woman with Dementia

I may have failed to mention—even to my own mother—that I spent the evening in the ER a couple of weeks before our move. (Sorry, Ma. We were a little busy.)

The whole story requires a little background, so bear with me while I tell you a bit about my ticker:

A couple of years ago, I was eating Thanksgiving dinner, when I suddenly felt like I was going to pass out. Intense dizziness, hot/cold flash, rapid heartbeat, etc. for about 20 seconds, and then it subsided. Thankfully, my friend Paula was there and she told me she’d had something similar happen when she was eating too quickly once. She said it was a “vasovagal response,” where you swallow weird and it pushes against the vasovagal nerve that runs alongside your esophagus, which causes you to faint.

Huh. Alrighty then.

Fast forward to this year. At the beginning of May, my mother-in-law (whom I adored) passed away. Right around then, I started noticing fairly frequent pains in my chest. I was sure it was just stress and broken-heartedness, and didn’t worry about it too much.

Then we went to a friend’s house for dinner in June. As I was eating some AMAZING grilled zucchini, I had one of those vasovagal responses again. My heart beat SO hard during it, it felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I didn’t pass out, but as before, I came very close.

(Apparently, I shouldn’t get so excited about my food. They didn’t call me “Gordo” in college for nothing.)

So that evening, my heart felt sore, much like any muscle that has been overworked. That soreness, combined with the chest pains I’d been having, made me a little leary, so I went to the doctor. I explained all of my symptoms, he examined me thoroughly, and he said he didn’t think anything was wrong with my heart. All signs pointed to reflux. He even said reflux can make a vasovagal response more likely. He gave me a referral to a cardiologist, just to make extra sure, but he was quite convinced it was reflux. Cut out grains, garlic, spicy foods, and tomatoes. Groovy.

I cut out those foods, and the chest pains did get better. Then I let the grains thing slide (I do so love my morning cereal) and it went off and on. Tomatoes seemed to make the biggest difference. I didn’t go to the cardiologist.

Then about a month ago, I went out for a run in the evening. A minute or so into it, I had sudden, major pain smack in the center of my chest. It forced me to slow down and walk. I’m not much of a worrier, but this was pretty severe. I’m only 39, and I have no risk factors, by the way. But I have a friend who is a fit and healthy non-smoker/non-drinker who had a random heart attack at 39. So I thought about her and my recent chest pains. Then I had Havarti take me to the ER.

FYI, if you don’t want to wait around in the ER, go in with heart attack symptoms. I saw the waiting room full of people and fully expected a long night, but if you go in with chest pains, BOOM. They get you in immediately.

EKG. Normal. Blood test. Normal. Whew.

Then they took me back for a chest x-ray, and things got really bizarre.

They wheeled my hospital bed over to the x-ray area and parked me outside the x-ray room door. “We have someone in there now,” the orderly said. “It’ll probably be five or ten minutes. Sit tight.” Then he left.

So here I was, all by lonesome, staring at this closed x-ray room door, when I heard a voice on the other side. It sounded like an old woman—or rather, someone doing a totally exaggerated impression of an old woman with a grating, high-pitched voice and a strong Midwestern accent. Think George Costanza’s mother on Seinfeld. Or maybe Marge Simpson. Something like that.

And she was wailing. Well, not really wailing, more like moaning, but with a slight whine to it:

Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

Yikes. What was happening in there? 
Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”
The same phrase. In the same monotonous, plaintive voice. Over and over and over. 
Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

Again and again. She never let up. No exaggeration.

Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”


Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

I heard the x-ray technicians on the other side of the partition stifle some giggles.
Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

All I could see is that door and this caricature of an old woman’s voice.
Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.”

Every once in a while, she’d throw in “It’s terrrriblllle.” But other than that, it was  “Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.” 
For a SOLID TEN MINUTES.

I almost recorded it on my phone, just so I could fully share this bizarre experience with someone. But then I realized what it was and felt like it would be tacky to record it. Dementia. It had to be dementia. X-rays don’t hurt. 
At one point, one of the technicians noticed I was there, came over to me, and said, “We’re really not hurting her, I promise. It’s just an x-ray. She’s fine.” Then he left me alone again.  
And then what did I do? You guys. I laughed. Not at this woman’s phantom pain, but at the absurdity of the whole situation. I’m not proud that I laughed. Some of it may have been nervousness. But I couldn’t help it. I felt like I’d all of a sudden been sucked into a goofy movie. 
I’m like the least likely person to have a heart attack. What was I doing in the ER on a Tuesday night, sitting outside a closed door that sounded like a torture chamber on the other side of it? How did I get here? That’s why I took the photo above. What else could I do in this situation but laugh and take a picture of my feet at the end of a hospital bed? I felt like a lunatic, sitting alone in this dim hallway, staring at a door, wondering if I had some undetected heart defect, and listening to “Aaaaaooooowwww. Ow my Gaaaaaaaad. It’s huuuuurting meeee.” on repeat.
Finally, they finished with the poor old woman and opened the x-ray room doors. As they wheeled her out, I saw she’d fallen asleep. The nurse whispered to me as she walked by, “We’ll all get there someday.” 
Lord, I hope not. I really felt sorry for that woman and her family. We got a taste of dementia just briefly in my mother-in-law’s final weeks. But honestly, if I am in that woman’s slippers someday? I hope there’s someone on the other side of the x-ray door who laughs. Because even in the midst of something terrible and sad like dementia, life is too strange and hilarious not to laugh. We learned that through my mother-in-law’s cancer journey as well. I wonder if I’ll still feel that way when I’m 90. 
The x-ray came out normal. They kept me for another couple of hours for another blood test, which also came out fine, so they sent me home. I was supposed to make an appointment to see a cardiologist to have a stress test done “just in case,” but we were moving. Still need to find one here. 
So there we go. My ticker is (most probably) fine and dandy. Just don’t cook me any super-yummy food, or I might pass out on you. 
(But if I do, go ahead and laugh. I’ve probably got it coming.)

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

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