What Does A Heart Attack Feel Like?

I was going to say that the question most people ask when they hear I had a quintuple bypass at 35 years old is, “What does a heart attack feel like?” But that’s not really the proper wording.

It makes more sense to say that’s the question they most want to know, but don’t usually ask. I know this because during conversations, when I mention the initial feeling, their eyes will light up a bit at the thought of finding out a big secret. Knowing what to expect ahead of time takes away some of the fear of the unexpected, or so it would seem.

There are all sorts of ideas about what it feels like to have a heart attack. From TV and movies, there are thoughts of numb arms, sudden pains, pressure, and everything else in between. I remember going online once to find out if some of my arm pain was the sign of a heart attack and it said:

“If you’re searching the Internet, you’re not having a heart attack. You’d be on the floor.”

Yeah, so I found out that’s not true. I mean, it might be true for some people, but not in my case. While I can’t tell you what every heart attack feels like, I can tell you about mine.

I’ve written about the surgery and all the aftermath, but little about the heart attack itself. Leading up to the actual moment, I had become accustomed to occasional discomforts that were probably warning signs. Tingling hands were one. I remember having it get so bad once that I dropped a cup of 7-11 coffee while standing in a friend’s living room. It was weird but I just wrote it off as a, well, I don’t know what I wrote it off as. Looking back now, you’d think that was a big red flag, right?

skyIt wasn’t. I was tough. Tingling hands? Whatever. I drink a lot of soda. Sore chest muscles? Not a big deal. I was picking up both of my toddling children on a regular basis. Pain came with the territory. It’s part of being a dad approaching his mid-30s.

My heart attack happened in December of 2012 while I was talking to my wife. As I spoke, I sensed myself running out of breath. Each word was harder to get out and it felt as though I was only exhaling. I held my hand up and laid down on the bed, rocking back and forth. I don’t know why, but something told me that would help.

It did. I soon was breathing better, but was sort of wiped out. After only a few minutes, I felt like I had just gone on a three day bender – all sweaty and hunched over. My wife suggested I go to the medical walk-in center just near our house.

So that’s what I did. I walked there while having, what I soon learned, was a heart attack. Yeah. So much for not being able to search the Internet while having one. I was slithering along, catching my breath every few feet, but eventually made it to the door. By the time I was there, I was completely beat. I just wanted to collapse on the ground and sleep. It wasn’t a testament to toughness or anything. It was really an example of just how strongly I had learned to convince myself that painfully obvious symptoms would pass, no matter how intense they were.

The biggest memory of my heart attack, though? The feeling I had in my chest and arms. As I mentioned, my hand would sometimes numb up a bit. That feeling was back and stronger. Only now, rather than being limited to my hands, it stretched from one hand, up my arm, across my chest, and down the other. The feeling pulsed like one of those “Eat At Joe’s” neon signs from black and white movies. To this day, whenever I think about it, I think of a warning signal. It was as if my body was sounding an alarm.

Of course, there are all sorts of different heart attacks. They differ in severity and how we experience them. That’s a fact that seems like a no-brainer, but at least I finally had a handle on what the actual heart attack itself felt like, right? I knew what to expect and the concern that I wouldn’t know what was happening until it was too late was gone.

Well, gone until three days after my surgery when I was moved from ICU. My roommate described his heart attack to me and it sounded nothing like the one I had. He said he felt it in his throat. I didn’t listen to much after that. I just thought, “Damn. I still don’t know.”

At the end of the day, it’s not about what pains are heart attacks and what pains aren’t. It’s about pain. It’s about checking out something that doesn’t feel right. The most valuable piece of advice I heard during my recovery had nothing to do with tips or tricks to heart health. It was a simple statement.

You don’t win any awards for being in pain.

If you’re online looking up whether or not your arm pain is a sign of a heart attack, go to the doctor. If it hurts a lot, go to the hospital. Just because you’re not on the floor screaming doesn’t mean you’re fine. If you ignore the small signs, it’ll be too late by the time the big ones show up. In fact, you might be so used to ignoring them at that point, you won’t even notice. That’s a scary thought.

Unfortunately, no one is going to give you a magical checklist for diagnosing your ailments, because they differ from person to person. Your symptoms might differ from mine or even be a completely different medical issue altogether. The best you can do is take care of yourself and never prioritize anything above your health. Without it, you literally have nothing.