We read or hear regularly enough about endurance athletes keeling over from a heart attack to realize that even with the supposed health benefits of exercise, nothing is guaranteed.
Several years ago, my doctor, a marathon runner, told me that studies had shown that exercise seems to add about six years to your life expectancy, but you will have spent the equivalent of six years exercising. So do it because you like it, and because it improves the quality of the years you do have, not because it adds more. Exercise increases your capability. It helps you be more independent if you do manage to get old.
All this went through my mind this morning as I felt chest pains begin to radiate upward into my lower jaw. And I wasn't even exerting myself. I was sitting on the bed, petting a cat.
I could think of a number of excuses for some portion of the discomfort. I split firewood last night, stressing my upper body muscles in a way they haven't put up with since the end of the woodstove season in the spring. Maybe I had gas. (okay, no maybe about it). But the referral to the neck and jaw was straight from the list of scary symptoms you should not ignore.
The episode lasted a couple of minutes before going away completely. The anxiety lingered, though, because it was too much like an ominous scene in a television show.
I wasn't going to call an ambulance. I was scared, but not that scared. I hate to make a scene. Laurie drove me to Wolfeboro. I walked into the emergency room and quietly described the situation.
Sirens did not go off. Lights did not flash. Doctors and nurses did not charge in with stethoscopes trailing in the wind. A very pleasant triage nurse asked me questions and took vital signs. Resting rate in the 40s. Low blood pressure. No lifestyle or hereditary risk factors. Chest pains only, followed by a room-clearing, dog-quality fart and we would have chalked it up to something I ate and the minor risks of manual labor with a body a half-century old. But that damn jaw pain kept everyone interested in playing this thing through.
The nice part of small-town life is that you know people and people know you. After I was moved to a treatment room, the nurse who took over for the triage nurse turned out to be someone I had worked with when I lived on a farm and worked off part of the rent. She and her husband had managed the farm for its owner. Then they had moved to Maine for 14 or 15 years before coming back to this area a year or two ago. I knew they were back, but hadn't seen them much.
The cardiologist said, "You're the technician from the bike shop!" Then she looked at Laurie. "You're the violinist! And you used to make the bread for Nadine!"
"Cellist," corrected Laurie. "But I teach violin, too."
"The bread was marvelous," the doctor continued. "What was it? Oh yes. Oatmeal sunflower."
It was all very comforting. But the medical side couldn't be ignored. After all the immediate tests showed me to be an athletic, healthy person with low blood pressure and resting rate, good cholesterol numbers and no family history of heart disease on mother or father's side, there was still that damned jaw pain.
"We'd like to keep you overnight," said the doctor. "It might help get your stress test expedited. We need to do further tests to see if you have some little abnormality or damage to a valve or an artery."
Here's where it not only gets real, but it gets real expensive. Here's where the bedrock reality of my overpriced, do-nothing health insurance forces me to choose between paying for a hospital stay I have been advised to take or having that money to pay the exorbitant premium to keep the policy in force in case I have to pay much bigger money later.
Welcome to the land of the free, where nothing is.
After signing a release promising no one would sue them if I die tonight, I was allowed to come home, provided I do absolutely nothing until I contact my regular doctor and get that stress test. After that, who knows? This could be an expensive over-reaction to indigestion or something really ugly.
As long as I was willing to walk out of the supportive cocoon of the hospital, I could sleep in my own bed and eat home cooked food. I wanted to go home.
You can tell yourself over and over that life expectancy is just a number, but some things still emphasize how instantly things can change. You're lucky if you get that heightened sense of life's fragility without a nasty, graphic demonstration of it. Some people need to be told that things are going to be all right. I know better than to ask for that assurance, much as I might like it.
It is what it is, whatever it turns out to be. You can try your best to get what you want, but sometimes you just have to take what you get.
Good luck, y'all.