Marriage For Men
Articles by: Henry Sawatzky
MA; RCC and Director
So…My Wife had a Heart Attack
She has literally been The Wind Beneath my Wings since I was 20 years old.
I’m going to be 57 this year, so yea, do the math. It’s my entire adult life. I think the deal got sealed when we had been dating for several months and I got my acceptance letter for college. We opened it together. “Conditional Acceptance”. I was on Academic Probation. Let’s just say my high school performance had been less than stellar.
I was so terrified I considered just keeping the steady job I had and making the best of it. But she sat beside me and told me it would be ok. “You can do this”, she said.
She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. It literally doesn’t get better than that.
Not that our 36 years of marriage have been all peaches and cream, but all this is to say, I can’t conceive of not having her in my life.
Fast forward to last November. It was a very ordinary Wednesday evening. We completed our regular night-time ritual of watching a little TV together. But this time something was off. She was restless, struggling to get comfortable. There was a bit of tightness in her chest. Her shoulder was sore, but that had been nagging her for a few months so it had taken on a degree of normalcy. But something felt a little more menacing tonight.
Neither of us wanted to say what we were thinking.
So we decided to try to get some sleep. About an hour later she woke me up. “I’m not doing well. I think you should call the hospital.” I had a momentary battle with sleep as I felt it grip the very center of my brain and attempt to drag me back into itself. But I sat up. She got back in bed and I called 911.
The ambulance was there in 9 minutes.
In the days to follow I checked the times on my iPhone. From the time I pressed Send to the EMTs being in our bedroom, which is when they let you end the call, was 9 minutes. It was the longest 9 minutes of my life.
I wanted to help. To take care of her. To bring relief to this pain. Nope. I had nothing.
I followed the ambulance to the hospital careful to stay close behind as if somehow having my car be within 100 ft of her would help. Upon arriving at the Emergency doors I had to turn off to park. It doesn’t give those old school parking meters any more where you can quickly throw in a few quarters and a loonie and be off. Nope. You have to dig out your credit card and punch in your license plate number.
What is my license plate number anyway? I can tell you that poor parking meter and city officials who put it there received a thorough cussing that night. Sorry about that. Finally, it worked. Had it? I didn’t really care anymore. And then I started to run. It was about 200 meters to the emergency door.
In the midst of my sprint, the thought occurred to me “Why am I running? What am I going to do when I get there? By now she’ll be in a Doctor’s care. Nothing I can do will add to her safety.” It didn’t matter.
I had to be with her. Somehow, being separate felt wrong. So I ran.
The next 6 hours were a blur. There were needles pulling blood out and pushing in medicine. We heard the words “heart attack”, “stents” and “angioplasty”. We were in survival mode. It was stunning how little I felt emotionally over the next 48 hours. I was numb, functioning.
There were appointments to cancel, doctors to be talked too, and family to call. The terror I had felt while waiting for the ambulance to arrive had given way to a machine like orientation of getting things done that needed to be taken care of. The reality of it striking me in the face only when I called each of our five children.
“Mom has had a heart attack.” Was that right? Am I actually saying that? Each time it felt the same.
Then, when that was done, I was back in robot mode. That was how I got through the next 48 hours. I even ended up keeping most of my appointments. The next thing I knew it was Friday night. She had survived her experience in the cath lab. The first 2 stents had been installed and she was out of the woods. It was the first time since Wednesday night I felt I could really breathe.
I was sitting at her bedside and it was getting late. I was just about to leave for the night when we started into a new kind of conversation. I’m not really sure how it started, but we began to tell each other the story of how we had experienced the past 48 hours. Before we knew it, an hour had passed. We talked about how long it took for the EMTs to arrive, what was the ambulance ride like, when did we actually first hear the words “you’ve had a heart attack”? “Were you scared?”
I asked her what I did that helped and what I could have done better.
It’s a conversation we’ve had a dozen more times since the heart attack. Having conversations about important events matters. Whether they are traumatic or celebratory. I am reminded of a friend who dropped his wife off at the hospital to undergo a dangerous and invasive procedure. He drove her to the front door, handed her an overnight bag and left for work.
She felt terrified and abandoned.
When I asked him what was going on for him, he told me they were on the edge of losing their house and he was terrified of his wife not having a home to come to. So he went to work. But three years later they had never had a conversation about their respective fears, and the result was a mountain-sized wedge between them.
Cataclysmic and terrifying events will happen in all of our lives.
You can count on it. But talking about them means we don’t have to feel alone. Sometimes talking about the heart attack is hard. It dredges up painful memories. But it also brings us together. It’s been 5 months now since that fateful Wednesday night. As my wife is fond of saying, she is grateful to be “upright and pink”. It’s going well, but she is still in recovery.It’s been a slow but forward moving process. And we are still talking about it. I think we will be for a long time.