Thursday, Jul 31, 2014Thursday, Jul 31, 2014
Lifestyle
 

Chest pain a wake-up call

A recent pain in my chest followed by a bout of light-headedness may be signs that I should pay more attention to my health

Published on Jul 2, 2014 10:52 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I lay there in the cold room, swaddled in a blanket, gazing at the big hulking machine that loomed above me.

My body was about to be fed into a dark tunnel and a cheery display panel was describing what I was about to see and hear. Suddenly, there was a beep and some sort of countdown was commencing.

My insides felt a little like they were about to combust. The nurses had put a drip into my arm and injected some sort of fluid dye that was coursing through my veins.

I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking this must be what it feels like to be dead and lying there at the crematorium, about to go into that final fiery end.

Just then, the belt I was lying on started moving.

Six hours earlier, the day couldn't have started off more normally.

I had woken up at the usual time and had my usual local breakfast of wonton noodles at a nearby coffee shop.

I drove to work, started up the computer and began preparing for the usual morning meeting to discuss the day's news stories and events.

Except that there was a small nagging pain in my chest that was slowly growing in intensity.

It didn't bother me much but I remember thinking that I would probably skip my planned lunchtime gym workout that day because of it.

Then the meeting started and I was briefing my colleagues. But as soon as I finished, the pain suddenly took over my body. I started sweating profusely and felt like I couldn't really breathe.

I looked at my colleague from the foreign desk who was talking about Syria and realised I couldn't understand a single word she was saying. I thought I would pass out but I kept my head down and concentrated on taking deep breaths.

Eventually the pain eased into a dull sort of ache and I held on until the end of the meeting. Luckily no one asked me any questions.

I went back to my desk and sat there, a little stunned by what just happened and wondering what to do next.

My first thought was that all these past years of eating fried junk food had finally caught up with me. I go to the gym to lift weights, but am usually too lazy to run or do much cardio.

Worse, I had pursued this life with wilful abandon, refusing to do the annual medical check-ups that could have signposted any possible health problems.

My last physical, done more than five years ago, had recorded a blood cholesterol level that was borderline high - meaning that I was on the cusp of being prescribed medication.

Since then, I have become just one of those people who do not want to know - or rather, do not want to have to change my behaviour because of what I know.

At a deeper level, however, I felt unprepared and slightly depressed at the thought of what I knew in my heart of hearts that the morning episode could signify.

Logic dictates that there must come a point in everyone's life when the body tips over the edge and starts on its slow and steady physical decline.

I am 41 years old and - barring a serious illness in my childhood which I have recovered from - have had no health problems so far. I've been able to eat anything, go anywhere and do anything I want with this body, so was this the moment that it was all about to change?

I tried Googling the symptoms to see if I had experienced a heart attack, but the reams and reams of information I pulled out only served to deepen my confusion.

In the end, after consulting with a colleague and recalling the advice from fengshui masters at the start of the Year of the Horse ("if you are a Rat, you will be ill and you must go and see a doctor"), I went to see the GP upstairs.

She did an ECG, which found nothing abnormal. But she was worried about the sweating and the light-headedness I experienced and referred me straightaway to a cardiologist.

I stopped to have lunch before seeing the cardiologist at 3pm. Sensing the end was nigh, I ordered a huge bowl of curry yong tau foo and added extra pork lard.

The cardiologist was not amused by my lunch choice or the fact that I had no recent medical data to speak of. It made it hard for him to make an accurate diagnosis and a second test - an ultrasound this time - also revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

All he had to go on was that there had been no history of heart disease in my family. On the other hand, I was at exactly the sort of age where problems typically start to show and all that sweating at the meeting really was worrying.

In the end, he told me that if I wanted to be sure if any dangerous blockages had formed in my main arteries, I would have to go for a MRI scan. It would be costly but 100 per cent conclusive.

And that was how I ended up holding my breath in a cold, dark tunnel, slightly freaked out by the mysterious whirrs and clicks that were going off around me.

By now, you know how this story ends - the cardiologist looks at the scan and tells me I have had a close shave, that I'm lucky to be alive. Feeling that I've been given a second chance, I re-evaluate my reckless lifestyle and pledge to value my life and my loved ones even more.

I take up cycling, interval training, hot yoga, meditation or some combination of all of the above. In three years' time, I hope to complete my first marathon and proudly wear the "Finisher" T-shirt at the gym.

Alas, no.

My report came back showing that I had a "calcium score" of zero, meaning there was no blockage in my arteries whatsoever. The morning episode was more likely neurological, perhaps a severe panic attack, and I should watch my stress levels.

I could hardly believe my ears.

"Does that mean I'm somehow genetically impervious to heart disease and I can eat anything I want?" I asked.

Inside, the cardiologist must have let out a long deep sigh but on the outside, he was stony-faced.

"I think you are okay for the next three years or so," he replied.

But I still walked out of his office feeling uneasy, unable to shake the feeling that this was somehow the start of the end.

ignatius@sph.com.sg