What I Learned About Heart Attacks


Azaleas at Savill Garden

Having a heart attack is something one is never prepared for.  But unlike other life changing events, such as childbirth, instead of leaving one awed by the miracle of life on earth, it leaves one shocked by the fragility of human existence.

My mother's right hand

Last Friday, my mother called me saying she felt unwell, and wanted to see me, urgently.  That night, I flew from New York to London.  When I arrived at her house, she wanted something to help her breathe, so we called NHS 111.  After refusing an ambulance twice, my mother agreed to let them come.

The paramedics said that my mother was having a heart attack.  They turned on the sirens and raced to Harefield Hospital, one of the UK’s leading heart hospitals.

My mother's left hand

My mother, who had always refused medical treatment whenever possible, now lay strapped to a cot with tubes coming out all over.  She lifted the oxygen mask briefly to say, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“There’s going to be a lot of fuss when we arrive,” said a paramedic. “Just go with it.”

Medical staff wheeled my mother into the operating room and paramedics said the angioplasty would take about half an hour. In fact, the surgery took upwards of two hours, during which I threw up three times in the hospital bin. 

The doctor told me he had placed two stents in my mother’s heart and that it looked quite good, but that things could go either way in the first twelve hours.  Tubes and wires threaded from her body to bags of liquid, an oxygen tank, and a monitor that dinged intermittently, bringing sudden visits by nurses.

A bird I tried to save

Near my mother's house, I found an injured bird, which I failed to nurse back to health, and a sick hedgehog, which I had no idea how to help. I saw rabbits frolicking in the horse’s field and wondered why life came with its promise of lush exuberance, and later drained it all away.


I met a new family member, Elizabeth, and saw in her face what we have all felt at times: wonderment at being alive. My mother is at home now, happy to be here, and hoping that what has been wonderful in life will continue to be so.

My mother in more carefree days