Every Breath You Take

green heartI had a health scare recently while in bed reading. A heavy pressure filled my chest, my arms went numb, and I broke out in a clammy sweat from head to toe. Given where we live, I knew it would be hours before I could make it to a hospital. As I lay contemplating my options, the symptoms disappeared. When it happened again a few days later, this time while on my bike, I was scared and called a friend and local volunteer EMT, Jared Fralie, who suggested a few options. My mom was in Scotland, and I had planned to go feed her cats in Sierra Vista later in the day. Instead of waiting, I took an aspirin and hit the road, promising Ron I would go to the hospital as soon as I got to town. During the two and a half hour drive to Sierra Vista, I felt fine and thought a trip to the emergency room was a bit dramatic. I called my sister Missi who is a paramedic, and a friend who recently had open heart surgery. Both agreed I shouldn’t wait until morning to see a doctor.

It was after dark when I arrived at the emergency room, which is in a busy, rural Trauma III hospital. The staff and medical team were friendly and accommodating, but this isn’t a heart center. As long as I wasn’t dying, there wasn’t much they could tell me. The no-nonsense emergency room doctor admitted me into the hospital citing an irregular EKG as the problem. I spent the night in observation where I was woken often to be poked and prodded. In the morning, I was delighted to have two of my former college students assigned to me, one a nurse, the other a CNA. I also met a young resident who asked a lot of question and then suggested maybe my problems were hormonal or maybe I had low blood sugar, and as he put it, “If you were my mom (Ouch!) I would tell you to eat a piece of candy.” At this point I seized the opportunity to use the ridiculous conversation we were having as a teaching moment. We went through my symptoms again and this time I asked questions. After we finished, he admitted he didn’t know what was wrong with me.

As I remained calm, the less civilized part of me wanted to throttle him. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African-American and white women in the United States. Our symptoms can often be more subtle than that of men. We may complain of indigestion, or a sore back rather than grabbing our chests as though a locomotive has passed through our bodies. And yet, here was this young doctor parroting the long held attitudes and beliefs of his mentors—beliefs that diminish women in the eyes of the medical community. As recent as the 1970’s, I may have been given a diagnosis of hysteria  or melancholy and prescribed Valium. In 2018 I should expect more and was deeply troubled that, as a middle-aged woman, I had been systematically erased by archaic ideals and practices that date back to ancient Egypt.

I stayed in Sierra Vista for nearly two weeks while I gathered information and made numerous phone calls to find a cardiologist. But the real reason I didn’t go home was that I was afraid. I thought, if I have a heart attack at the ranch, I may not survive given the logistics. This is a real concern for people in rural areas. Country living isn’t for the faint of heart (No pun intended.) and statistics prove it. Our urban counterparts have a longer life expectancy and have more physicians and specialists available. Those of us out in the sticks have more occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Given all this fresh air and open space, you would think we would all be happy, but unfortunately that’s not true. Young people in rural areas are twice as likely to commit suicide, and we have a higher drug overdose rate than city folks.

Going home meant I would have to face some troubling realities in our rural community as well, and Jared was kind enough to help paint a picture. Our volunteer ambulance service has five EMTs, some with more skills and training than others. Two of them have full-time jobs and currently, one volunteer is unable to work because of health issues. If I had called 911, Jared estimates it would have taken fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get to our house, given volunteers were nearby and available. Depending on my symptoms, I would have been transported to the hospital in either Silver City or in Deming, both of which are an hour and twenty minutes away. Among Jared’s numerous responsibilities, he also has the authority to decide when to Airvac a patient. After he makes the call, it takes approximately forty minutes before a chopper lands in Animas and then another forty-five minutes for a patient to be airlifted to Tucson or to Las Cruces.

Aware of what it meant to return to the ranch, I needed to know with some certainty I was out of the woods. So before I left Sierra Vista, I went for a hike in the Huachuca Mountains and gave it my all racing up and down rocky trails. In the end, I felt pretty good. Good enough to pack up and head home, yet I still worried. Ron was on an elk hunt, which meant I would be alone for a few days, but I wanted to get back to my normal routine and the dogs were getting antsy after being cooped up in the city. When I got home, I was greeted with another reality as two startled rattlesnakes scared me half to death. After barricading myself and the dogs in the house, I contemplated the heart monitor I was prescribed to wear. Is it worth it living out here, so far from town? I don’t know any more.

The last couple of days have been cold and stormy. Today the sun came out and with it dozens of finches that have flocked to the feeders I filled this morning. They will be with us through the winter trusting that the tall lady wearing flannel will keep them fed. For now they are a good reason to stay here. If they can survive the storm, so can I.