SPOILER ALERT: I was NOT having a heart attack.
Last night, I was taking a shower when I had a sudden searing, clenching pain in my chest that took my breath away. It lasted for a couple minutes, and then got a bit better, but my left arm and shoulder and neck were clenched and sore. My chest felt tight.
Was I having a heart attack? Nope. Turns out, it was a huge muscle spasm. I had never had one like that before. But WOW did it present like a heart attack. I Googled “women’s heart attack symptoms” and had almost everything on the list (minus nausea or vomiting).
But did I go to the E.R. immediately? Nope. I felt scared, but not just that I was really sick—I felt scared that the staff would judge me harshly if it turned out I wasn’t having a heart attack.
How messed up is that?!
Have you ever left the E.R. with undiagnosed symptoms?
Oh, babe—I know you have. I have, too, many times. I think it’s part of having undiagnosed chronic illness; as we try to figure out why we feel so broken, the E.R. is often the easiest place to get care for things that feel, well, emergent.
I’ve done it so many times over the past 20 years, in fact, that I’ve developed a bit of shame about it. That shame has sometimes kept me from going, because I know the odds are that they won’t find anything. Tests will come back negative, blood work won’t show anything, and they’ll throw up their hands and say “we don’t see anything wrong, so maybe you’re under stress?” And then I’ll head home, dejected, still unwell, and alone.
This pattern repeats over and over for many of us, and can begin to make us feel like it’s never worth going to the E.R. or the doctor’s office. But DO NOT stop getting checked out.
What if I had been having a heart attack?
Seriously, how terrible would it have been if I was having a heart attack, and didn’t get checked out because I was worried about being ashamed of not being sick? Super terrible. And I’m not a doctor…how should I know if I was sick enough to go to the E.R.? Google is NOT our doctor either, babe. But dang, even Google was telling me to go to the hospital last night.
My husband, Joe, got home just as I was deciding to call 911. The operator said a person should never ever neglect chest pains, and that they were sending an ambulance. Joe spoke up and said he would drive me. A few minutes later, we were in the E.R. and I was being rushed into care.
I kept saying to the nurses and docs, “I’m sure this is nothing. I have chronic pain. Maybe this is nothing.” And they kept saying, “Don’t worry, we’ve got you, we’re going to check you out right away and we’ll figure this out.” And I kept thinking, “I am wasting time and space. This is going to be nothing. Why am I even here?” Even as docs and nurses were telling me I had made the right call, I was still questioning my decision.
The shame of 20 years of mysterious, undiagnosable symptoms runs deep, y’all.
I’ve never been thankful for a muscle spasm before
A bazillion tests later, I was thanking a doctor for telling me I was having a huge muscle spasm. Who woulda thunk? He was like, “Great news! It’s a muscle spasm! You’re going to be really hurting for a few days.” And I was like, “Yay! Thanks for that great news!”
The relief on Joe’s face was clear, too. As I peeled off all of the electrodes to get dressed and go home, I kept apologizing to Joe for wasting an evening. “Stop that nonsense,” he said. “I’m here for you. I’m here for this. You had to get checked out. And it wasn’t a waste; you needed care for a muscle spasm.” Having a partner who believes in me, and who takes my health seriously, has shifted my self-esteem hugely. I think that if I didn’t have him in my life, I probably would have just stayed home, quietly panicking for hours, instead of seeking care.
Next steps for you:
If you have ever gone to the E.R. or doctor and not gotten a clear diagnosis, or been told “it’s all in your head,” or been shamed by anyone for seeking care, or felt ashamed even if everyone was kind and supportive, I encourage you to take these steps, all of which have helped me (and which I need to continue to do as well):
- Bookmark some top medical sites where you know you can get reliable health info on both your computer and/or phone. I like WebMD and Mayo Clinic. That way, you won’t be tempted to just Google it—you can go quickly to the most reliable sources.
- Add your primary care doctor as a favorite contact or speed dial number on your phone; bonus points if you can add a number for their triage nurse or urgent care line. That way, it’s easy to make a call to the best person to answer questions about new symptoms.
- Add the friend or family member who most believes in you as a favorite contact or speed dial number on your phone. That way, you can reach out to them if you’re questioning if you need care, and they’ll tell you to take care of yourself.
- Spend a little time journaling about the shame you’ve felt about undiagnosed symptoms or visits to the doc or E.R. that left you feeling like you wasted someone else’s time. Then burn those journal pages, or shred them, or scribble over them with a marker. Get out some aggression. Cut it loose. Because I don’t want you hanging on to feelings and patterns that don’t serve you. That way, you can release some of the shame.
- Repeat after me: I am allowed to take care of myself. I am not obligated to understand what’s going on when I have new symptoms. It is my right and my responsibility to seek care if something new is happening that I don’t understand. Repeat this every damn day if you need to. That way, you begin to believe that you’re worth it.
I hope you never have to go to the E.R.
But if you’re having intense symptoms, and you’re not sure what they are, and you have even a smidge of a feeling that they could be serious, then GO. Your health and welfare are on the line, and you’re worth it.