Heart Squeezies, Heart Clutchies, VAPOR LOCK!

by Tina Blue
October 25, 2000

          If you have read my articles "Slow Down, You're Moving Too Fast" and America's Sleep Deficit," then you know that I believe our society pushes us to zip about at a truly unhealthy pace. I don't write just as an observer, though--I am also a victim of the outrageous pace of modern life.

          Most people consider me a dynamo. I'm not, really. I just play one on TV. Oops--wrong cliche. I do cram more work into a 24-hour day than most people would consider humanly possible, and certainly everything I do, I do fast. But you must not think this is a deliberate choice. I don't really want to work myself to exhaustion. It's just that the sort of work I do pays very poorly, and in order to pay bills, I have to tuck all sorts of other jobs around my main job, which is teaching English at the University of Kansas.

          I am one of those very low-paid adjunct faculty members you hear about all the time. I've taught at KU since 1972, and I currently make $11,000 a year. It's considered a half-time appointment, but it really requires a full-time commitment, as any adjunct faculty member will tell you.

          I also tutor and write, as well as doing odds and ends of editing and proofreading on a freelance basis. But the teaching alone (mostly the grading and the conferences) uses up about forty to fifty hours in any given week during the semester, so the other jobs fill up my evenings, late nights, and weekends.

          And of course I am always available to help my children or my friends with whatever coursework they need guidance on.

          Until August 17, 1999, I also ran a home daycare, from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., though it usually lasted until 6:30 because some parents simply refused to pick their children up on time. I actually used to have to ask a friend to watch the left-over children so I could get to my 6:30 p.m. tutoring job!

          For many years I have had what I call "heart squeezies," mild but distressing sensations that my heart was being, well, squeezed. Sometimes, too, there would be a temporary sense that something had stopped--as if my heart were actually suspending its activity for awhile. I would press my hand hard against my chest until it felt better, and then get back to work

          Get back to work--that's the point. I work so much and so hard that I don't have time to deal with little things like possible heart problems. So for years I let it ride.

          Then on the evening of July 3, 1999, I was running my customary two miles at the local track when all of a sudden my squeezies started to feel more like "clutchies." I was not able to keep running, so I stopped for a moment and tried to breathe normally. Then I began to walk the rest of the lap so I could exit the track.

          VAPOR LOCK!

          The next thing I knew, I was on my back on the ground. Fortunately, no one else was there (it was 9:00 on a Saturday night), so I didn't have to deal with embarrassment as well. But then again, I also didn't have anyone to help me get home. It took me nearly an hour to make it the two blocks back to my apartment. I took a nice hot bath, and that made me feel much better, so I went to bed. The following Tuesday, I got up the courage to try running again. I didn't get knocked down by it this time, but I did have trouble getting home.

          This time the hot bath didn't make the pain or the weakness go away. I went to bed, but frankly I did not know whether I would be getting up the next morning--or ever again. But I was, as usual, so exhausted from overwork and lack of sleep that I figured what the heck--if I die, at least I'll get a good night's sleep. I did not have the energy to do anything--not even to call for help. And I was unwilling to give up any minutes from the few hours of sleep that I might be able to get.

          The next morning, when all the daycare kids were there, I found myself moving very slowly, at least compared to my normal level of activity. I didn't have any vapor-lock episodes, but the mild squeezies had been replaced with very aggressive clutchies, and I had to keep pausing to press my chest to get it under control. I called my eighteen-year-old daughter Becky, who was at her father's house that day, to help me handle the daycare, since it seemed clear to me not only that I couldn't move fast enough to get everything done properly, but also that if I keeled over with a heart attack the kids would not be cared for.

          I also called the doctor and asked him to squeeze me in around his other appointments. The doctors I see are great. As packed as his schedule was that night, he was willing to see me. I did have an 8:00-10:00 p.m. tutoring appointment, but the young man was willing to wait until I could get to the office at the dyslexia/learning disabilities clinic where I work. He could take a nap (which he would need, since he also worked too much) on the sofa in the lounge, and I would get there as soon as I could.

          After examining me, the doctor wanted me to go straight to the emergency room for tests, to find out if I had had a heart attack, and also to find out what else might be going on. I said I would--as soon as I had worked with the student I was supposed to meet that night. He had a paper due the next morning, and he really needed his session that night. I never let my students down. That's my problem: I never let anyone down, except myself.

          You see, I figured that if the doctor thought I was in real danger he would not allow me to go to my tutoring session--he'd really insist on my going to the emergency room immediately. I also figured that if he thought I was going to have a heart attack and die any time soon, he would call an ambulance, not let me drive across town to the hospital myself. As long as I was able to, I was going to keep working.

          I tutored until 10:20, and then went to the emergency room by myself. They kept me there and ran tests on me for hours. I finally was able to leave at 5:30 the next morning--after getting no sleep at all. (I can't help but wonder whether it's wise to let people with potential heart problems drive themselves home at that hour after a sleepless night in the emergency room.) The daycare was due to start up again at 7:00 a.m., and I knew I was not going to be able to handle it, so I called Becky again, and she worked for me the entire day.

          That evening after the daycare kids left, Becky hurried to her real job (poor girl). My nineteen-year-old son Michael stayed with me. They were both worried sick--and I hadn't even told them how bad it had been. I needed to get out of the house, so Michael and I  decided to take a short walk. I shuffled along like a ninety-year-old--I, whom nobody can keep up with!--and I still had trouble. After about two blocks, it happened again. The clutchies graduated into full-scale vapor lock, and I couldn't even stay on my feet, much less walk. Michael was sure that I was dying before his very eyes. He was terrified.

          I told him I'd be fine--I just needed to rest a bit before we went home, but he wasn't buying it. He flagged down a passing motorist and got me home. We called the doctor, who told me to go to the emergency room immediately. My son drove (Like a maniac, I might add! It's a wonder we didn't die in a wreck!). My best friend followed in his car, and my daughter met us there at the hospital. After they got me stabilized in the emergency room, they admitted me to the hospital proper.

          As soon as I got to a room with a phone, I made arrangements so that all the daycare kids would be taken care of and their parents wouldn't have to miss work. My daughter and a sixteen-year-old whom I had also trained and who regularly assisted me at my daycare would run the place for me until I got home.

          You'd be surprised at how many of the parents got downright angry that I would not be there at the daycare all day. How dare I get sick and have to go into the hospital! When they reacted so callously, I made up my mind on the spot that I would quit the daycare. It was to a large degree their selfish exploitation of my concern for their children that had put me in the hospital, yet instead of being worried about my health or grateful that I had arranged everything for them, so they wouldn't have to miss even a minute of work, they were annoyed that their slave wasn't going to be at their beck and call for awhile!

          I spent five days in the hospital. The cardiologist told me the day after I was admitted that I could go home if I could walk a short distance down the hall and back. I wasn't able to, so I had to stay.

          As soon as I got out of the hospital, I gave notice. August 17 would be my last day of daycare. (A birthday present to myself--August 18,1999, would be my 49th birthday.) When these people had to find other daycare for their children, they suddenly began to understand what they were losing. They ended up paying twice what I was charging, for shorter hours. When someone complained about it, I told her, "You guys never did appreciate me."

          She replied, "We did too appreciate you."

          My response to that was, "If you had appreciated me, you wouldn't have forced me to quit by exploiting me so outrageously."

          Well, it wasn't a heart attack, though it certainly felt like I was having a heart attack. It did turn out that I have an irregularity in my heartbeat, but the doctors don't
it will kill me--though they can't promise that it won't. I also have high blood pressure--in the hospital it was up to 200/120 even while I was asleep. Now I take medicine for it, but it's still too high.

          The problem, essentially, is stress and exhaustion. I am only fifty years old, and except for overwork and undersleep, I've always tried to take care of myself. But that stress-exhaustion combination is a killer. I try to slow down, but I do have to pay my bills, after all.

          Quitting the daycare helped. The hours were horrendous, the pay was terrible, and the parents were uncooperative and exploitative. But I am like too many people in our society. I would love to slow down and live a normal life, but a normal life is a luxury many of us simply cannot afford. Some people choose to live life on the fast track. Some of us have no real choice at all.

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