I only have heart attacks in Hawaii

Are you one of those people who uses humor to deal with tough situations?

I am. I have always tended toward dark humor.

I love laughter in general, and I have found that laughing during difficult times is often a good way to keep oneself sane.

That’s why, when I talk about what happened to me on the tenth day of our glorious Kauai vacation, I often use humor to tell the story.

You see, I don’t always have heart attacks, but when I do, I have them in Kauai.

Having a heart attack in Hawaii was crazy for SO many reasons. First of all, my beloved hubby wasn’t with us.

We had made the decision as a family that he would sit this one out. E hates to travel and we had already dragged him to Costa Rica in March. Z and I figured he deserved a break; of course, we would always prefer to have him with us, but why should we make him suffer? He longed for a break from travel so he could work on a big landscaping project in our backyard without us bugging him.

The other reason my Hawaiian heart attack was bonkers is that I’m extremely healthy and I’ve never had an issue with my heart. At my annual physical in June, my doc said “keep doing exactly what you’re doing.”

My blood pressure and my bloodwork are always normal. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol. I make walking and movement part of my daily life. I like to eat in a pretty balanced way: lots of vegetarian meals and salads, plus enough burgers and steaks to keep my iron up for my regular blood donations. I do love sweets, but I try to practice moderation.

I value self-care as if it is my religion. I meditate, laugh with friends, chant and walk at sunrise as often as I can. I talk to a therapist to process my feelings about tough experiences and stressful situations. I journal and write (including here on this blog) ALL the time as a form of self-therapy. I have hobbies and I value and invest in myself – just look at my colorful tattoos. I’ve spent years practicing radical acceptance and learning how to love myself JUST as I am.

And, on top of all those day-to-day things, I also just spent 10 days gazing at the ocean in one of the most beautiful places on earth! Our family actually took TWO amazing vacations this year. Who gets to visit Costa Rica and Kauai in the SAME year? This lucky girl. My travel dreams became a reality in 2022.

So why, on day 10 of our incredible Kauai trip, did I suddenly experience intense chest pain and pressure while walking to the pool? Why did I break out in immediate fatigue, unusual shortness of breath and bizarre, full-body sweats that afternoon? We still don’t fully know the answer, but I have a theory.

Thursday, July 28

I had my first-ever cardiac symptoms for about two to three hours that afternoon. It all felt so very wrong. My body felt odd and unfamiliar; it didn’t feel like me. My instincts were shouting “warning, danger!” My head kept saying well, maybe you’re just tired from the strenuous boat ride. Maybe you just need to go back to the hotel and lie down. But I listened to my gut: this felt off. This felt bad.

I asked my brother to take me to Urgent Care. Yes, I now know that for heart symptoms, you need to go to the ER! But this was my first time. I had no clue where to go – I just knew I shouldn’t be driving.

My bro is a champ. He took me to Urgent Care and hung out with me there when he should have been relaxing and chilling back at our ocean-view suite. He was such a strong and comforting presence – I appreciate him so much!

When we first got to Kauai Urgent Care, I felt so exhausted, sweaty and shaky that I could barely stand to fill out paperwork. As I lay there while they did an EKG and took my vitals – all were normal and fine – I gradually started feeling better. I began thinking this was all some kind of false alarm.

Maybe I really was just tired and muscle-fatigued from the open-ocean boat ride we’d been on that morning?

But the Urgent Care doc didn’t think so – she said I had a “good story” for a heart event. She insisted on sending me to the ER. She said that because I was feeling better and acting normal, we could drive ourselves instead of going in an ambulance. But she stressed that we needed to go to the ER right away. Get this, they insisted on wheeling me out to the car in a wheelchair – how embarrassing.

Once we were in the car, I literally said “Bro, maybe we should just go home to the resort and I can rest there? I really feel fine now!” But G convinced me that I needed to get checked out just in case. I agreed but told him he could drop me off and I’d call him when I was done. I didn’t want to waste any more of his Hawaii vacation time sitting in medical waiting rooms!

Graham went home to the resort while I put on a medical gown and tried to rest in the uncomfortable ER bed. They did another EKG and took my vitals – all normal. They took blood for a quick lab test. I face-timed my sweet 12-year-old back at the resort and told her mom is fine and I’ll be home soon. I really believed that!

My bro and I were so convinced I’d be released that we made plans to hit the Thai food truck on the way home. He came back about 7:30 pm and sat in the parking lot ready to drive me back to the resort. I was starving by that time. The nurses let me put my own clothes back on. I was just waiting on final approval from the doc before I walked out the door.

Then, the ER doctor came in and told me my blood showed a slightly elevated hormone, Troponin, that can be an indicator of a heart attack. She said that based on a Troponin level of 19, she’d like to admit me to the hospital for observation overnight. I was shocked! Admit me into the actual hospital? But I feel totally fine now!

She saw my hesitation and said this heart hormone wouldn’t be elevated unless I’d had some kind of cardiac event. She said it could have been a small one – and that’s why I feel okay now – but that it also could happen again and be bigger.

I realized that I was here for the night and started to relax. I texted my brother – and my hubby E at home in Ohio – to let them know I’d be staying the night at the hospital. I had nothing with me at the ER except my purse. My brother went back to the resort to check on Zoe. My sister-in-law came to the hospital with a few things for me such as my toothbrush, phone charger, some fresh undies and my laptop.

I called Z again and told her I’m fine, but I have to stay in the hospital overnight so they can be sure. At this point, my biggest worry was my sweet Zoe panicking. I feared that she’d be so scared and worried! She has never spent the night with my brother and his family before – she’s used to always being with E and I. I was so, so anxious about how she would react to all of this scary news. I desperately wanted to be back home at the resort with her.

The ER staff took blood again two hours later, and by now my Troponin level had shot up to 71. The doc said this DEFINITELY indicated that I’d had a small heart attack. This is where things got really scary. I could see from her face that things were serious.

The doc told me she would be MedFlighting me immediately to Honolulu to see the cardiac specialist there who would perform a cardiac catheterization to figure out the damage to my heart.

The bottom dropped out for me. I felt panic spiraling up. What about Zoe? How could I leave my daughter and family to fly to another hospital – on another ISLAND – all by myself? Not to mention the fact that Z and I were supposed to fly home to E in Ohio tomorrow!

The doc quickly had me put on oxygen which for some reason calmed me down and made me very sleepy. I also had two IVs put in, one in the back of my right hand and one in my left elbow crook. They put a nitroglycerin patch on my chest, started me on blood thinners, and gave me some baby aspirin.

They may have given me something to take the edge off, too, because I suddenly felt more resigned and less anxious. I texted my brother and E to let them know this was quite serious and I was being MedFlighted to Honolulu for an immediate heart cath.

My bro asked if the fam could come up and visit me before I left; the nurses said two people at a time could come in. I must have napped a bit because the next thing I knew, the bright lights above me turned on and Graham and Zoe were there! I hugged them both and told them I was fine. Then my nieces came in and hugged me, too. My SIL came, too – my whole fam came to see me off. I wish I had been more awake and thankful.

After that, things moved pretty fast. A pair of MedFlight nurses, both wearing actual flight suits, came in and got me prepped for transport. They told me they would be with me all the way to my hospital bed in Honolulu and they were very kind and reassuring. I wish I could remember their names to thank them properly! I’m pretty sure the guy was Matt, but the woman’s name escapes me and she was terrific.

The flight nurses and an ambulance crew helped me onto a stretcher, then wheeled me into an ambulance and off to an airport. At the airport, they let me sit up and walk myself to the plane while one of the flight nurses followed close behind and held my IV for me.

The MedFlight plane was very small. With my nurses’ help, I walked up a short set of stairs, then lay down on a stretcher bed in the cramped airplane compartment. My MedFlight nurses told me it would be a very short flight. I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them we were already landing in Honolulu. I sat up and walked down the steps, holding on tightly, and then they put me on another stretcher and wheeled me into another ambulance.

It was after midnight by this time. I didn’t see much of the new city and island. The ambulance took my MedFlight nurses and me to Straub Medical Center. They wheeled me into the hospital, up in an elevator and then I sat up and moved over to my soft, new hospital bed. It felt so comfortable compared to all the stretchers and that hard bed in the other ER!

I relaxed into bed, said goodbye and thank you to my wonderful MedFlight nurses, and met Jordyn, my awesome night nurse during my stay at Straub. She was cheerful, peppy and such a comfort to me!

Jordyn explained everything – that I was on IV blood thinners, that my vitals were all normal and that they would be taking blood every two hours for as long as I was there. She said my cath would likely take place in the morning. Then, after texting E, Z and my bro that I was safe in Honolulu, I tried to sleep.

Let me tell you, the blood draws every two hours all night got very old, very fast. Aside from the sleep interruptions, they were just unpleasant. My arms are still black and blue! By the time they released me Saturday morning, I’d had 18 blood draws and two IVs. My heart goes out to all who are hospitalized for longer and have to endure even more pokes.

Friday, July 29

When I woke Friday morning, I was feeling good other than a rough night’s sleep and too many blood draws. But I was also very hungry and thirsty. I soon realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch on Thursday – and I’d had my last sip of water long ago on Thursday afternoon. There was only one problem: I was allowed nothing by mouth per the cardiologist.

You see, they thought they would do my heart catheterization Friday morning, so they wouldn’t give me anything to eat or drink Thursday night at the hospital. But then my cath kept getting bumped because they had sicker and more critical cases than mine. They told me that my Troponin levels peaked at 214 the night I was brought in, but then began to drop every two hours after that.

Finally, mid-morning on Friday, the nurses took pity on me and got the cardiologist to let me have a light breakfast and a little water. I also took a shower, which helped me feel a bit more human.

The low point of my day was when the cardiologist came to explain the risks of heart catheterization to me: there’s a 1 in 1000 chance of potentially deadly complications. I cried just thinking about that. I am nowhere near ready to be that close to death!

I kept my spirits up by canceling our flights home and re-booking flights that I hoped I’d be well enough to take on Monday. I also stayed busy texting and face-timing Zoe, Eric and my brother. Ever my hero, E was making plans to fly to Kauai for Saturday afternoon arrival to be with Z. I was hoping I could make it back to Kauai myself soon after that – fingers crossed!

I watched a couple of hospital movies, including Lilo and Stitch, which was very fitting since I had just visited Lilo’s little hometown of Hanapepe in Kauai.

After too many more blood draws throughout the day, it was finally time for my long-awaited heart catheterization. The nurse who came to take me back made a big fuss of how “young and cool and tattooed” I am. He said most of his patients are a lot older; I heard that a lot during my stay on the cardiac floor.

They got me to the cath lab, strapped me to the table and prepped my wrist and groin area for possible catheterization. The doc prefers to go through the wrist, but I guess sometimes it’s not possible. Thankfully, in my case it was.

They gave me a light sedative through my IV but I was awake and alert for the whole procedure. I didn’t feel much pain, but definitely experienced some very creepy and uncomfortable feelings as they fed a thin wire up through my arm, across my chest and down into the chambers of my heart.

That’s when the doc made his announcement: I have a perfectly healthy heart. He told me to look up at the monitor so he could show me. Everything was working as it should, there was zero damage and no heart or artery disease. That’s great news; I’m very lucky! It just means that my heart event on Thursday afternoon is even more of a mystery.

I didn’t get any stitches to close my tiny cath wound, but I did get a crazy medical clamp put on my wrist. The nurses had to check every ten minutes to see if I had lost any feeling in my hand. Each time they checked, they took a tiny bit of pressure off the clamp and then watched to see if I would start bleeding (I never did). After about an hour of this process, they were able to take the clamp off entirely. They told me not to move my wrist or arm much for about 24 hours, and not to lift anything heavy for about a week.

Friday night after my cath, it felt like a celebration. Jordyn and the other night nurses made a big deal out of congratulating me for my healthy heart. They gave me the choice of any dinner I wanted, as long as I could eat it with my left hand (I was beyond starving – it was not a problem!)

That night, they continued taking blood to check my Troponin and blood thinner levels, but they dropped the frequency to just twice a night. I slept much better that night, mostly because I had booked an island-hopper flight back to Kauai for the next day. This crazy medical nightmare was coming to an end!

Saturday, July 30

When I woke early Saturday morning, Maria the day nurse took my IVs out. She said I still had to take baby aspirin every day, but I was no longer on blood thinners. I showered and she said the doctor would come by to release me sometime after noon.

I watched another movie – Dear Evan Hanson, which I liked a lot – and then had lunch. I packed up all my stuff into a plastic hospital bag and asked the nurses if I could change into my own clothes. She said I had to wait until the doctor cleared me. It’s always a waiting game in the hospital!

Finally, my doctors cleared me: first the hospitalist, then the cardiologist. My vitals and EKG had remained consistent and normal throughout my whole stay. My cath was clean. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me except arms full of holes and bruises.

The docs never found a reason for my elevated Troponin levels. They still think I had a small heart attack, but they can’t explain the lack of damage to my heart – or my seemingly miraculous recovery.

I attribute the whole thing to the too-wild, high-speed boat ride Z and I had taken Thursday morning. Bottom line, it was just a fluke and I’m confident I won’t have any further issues. I do plan to follow up with my doctor and get a referral to a cardiologist just in case.

A nurse walked me down to admitting, where I filled out a few forms and then got sent on my way. I hopped in an Uber to the Honolulu airport, checked in, and boarded my little flight back to Kauai. I traveled light, carrying only my purse and a plastic hospital bag with a few personal items.

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when I landed on Kauai again, back where I belonged! Eric had landed an hour earlier and my brother had picked him up, so I told them I would hop in a cab to save them another airport trip. One short car ride later and I was letting myself into our familiar resort suite.

What a welcome home I received! My sister-in-law had gotten POG juice (nectar of the gods!) and fresh Maui Gold pineapple for my welcome home party. I’ve never hugged E and Z so hard – or my brother, for that matter. I was home at last! The Kauai ocean and mountain views had never looked more beautiful. The Hawaiian air had never smelled sweeter.

A happy ending

Z and I spent the final two days of our Hawaii trip showing E some of our favorite sights and experiences around the island. He got a whirlwind tour of Kauai and said he loved it – and it only took a heart attack to get him there! We three happily traveled home together on the same flights Monday night and didn’t experience a single delay.

It’s so great to be back in Ohio. There’s truly no place like home after a two-week Hawaiian holiday. And especially after a brush with death and subsequent surprise hospital stay! I was so happy to hug our dogs and cat.

Now, hopefully, E won’t have a cardiac event of his own when we get the bills from the hospital, dual ambulances and MedFlight. Thank heavens for good medical insurance.

Have you ever experienced a medical misadventure while on vacation? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below or over on Instagram or Facebook!

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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