A Gift in adversity

By Jocelyne Despatis

It’s well known that heart attack symptoms are different in women, but I had no idea that they could be so subtle. Last spring, at age 75, I had a major heart attack. Not a single genetic or lifestyle-risk factor had ever made itself known, and my symptoms leading up to the crisis were mild, more pesky than anything else. Yet this first attack would likely have been fatal if Ottawa’s medical emergency systems had not worked optimally, which is not always the case.

It’s late May and the weather is grand. I’m prepping food for the freezer so that I can relax over the next four days in the company of two favourite cousins visiting from Montreal. Our slate of pleasant activities is quite long, starting this afternoon with the Gauguin portrait exhibit at the National Gallery.

Uncharacteristically when anticipating good times, I’m sluggish and lack enthusiasm. I have an annoying pain in my upper back.

Our guests arrive midday, and we lunch at home before heading off. After we’ve absorbed all that we can of Gauguin’s powerful paintings and sculptures, we sit at a table in the stunning setting of the Great Hall to sip wine and nibble tapas. To my surprise as a somewhat greedy foodie, the tapas hold no appeal for me, and I feel a surge of nausea when the wine touches my lips. So I sit chatting demurely, moved as I always am by the magnificence of the space we’re in and wondering what kind of bug I may be harbouring.

Later, when we’re out for dinner, nothing appeals, so I order soup and manage to force down a few spoonfuls. The night that follows is unpleasant and sleepless. I’m up before sunrise, sipping hot tea, biding my time until I can reach our family physician, who’s in at 8 a.m. on Fridays.

He answers on the first ring. Can he squeeze me in this morning? I’ll feel better once he rules out anything contagious. He asks a few questions and orders me to call 911 immediately. I do and by great good fortune, within 10 minutes, not only am I in an ambulance, a paramedic has also managed to get a blood sample out of my uncooperative veins and has informed the driver, and me, that a heart attack is in progress.

I’m driven to the General Campus, the closest facility, where I’m dispatched in short order to the Heart Institute, again by ambulance, but this time escorted by a drop-dead gorgeous male nurse.

The siren is blaring as we bump along at what seems to be breakneck speed. I joke about the cowboy at the wheel. My escort squeezes my hand and assures me that the driver knows what he’s doing.

His handsome face evokes images of the Archangel Gabriel dating back to my grade school catechism, and my brain is suddenly flooded with the gravity of my situation. I sense that the Grim Reaper is here in the ambulance, invisible but staring at me covetously.

My thoughts have become crystal clear while racing at warp speed. Then, abruptly, all is calm within me, as I realize that I’ve lived every day of my life as fully as I could, that I have no regrets and no wish to have done anything differently. If this is it, I’ve had a good run.

The medical fairies worked their magic, so I’m here to tell the tale. They did confirm that I had a close call as my right coronary artery was rupturing. Something was said about a matter of minutes.

I’m profoundly grateful to all of the competent medical pros for acquiring the knowledge and putting in the hard work needed to accomplish what they do. And it would be an insult to their achievements if I were not jubilant at still being among the living.

Way back, when I was in my early 20s, I made friends with an elderly neighbour. I helped her with a few errands, which she repaid generously by teaching me how to find gifts in adversity. She’d be pleased to know what a priceless treasure I found in my near-death cardiac adventure.

I found the gift of knowing beyond doubt that I’ve made good use of my life.

Jocelyne Despatis came to Ottawa from Montreal 35 years ago and had a rewarding career as a consultant until retiring in 2005. Her memoir was written during Anne Le Dressay’s memoir-writing class at Abbotsford.

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