This blog “I Went to the Emergency Room” is reposted here with Dr. Kwok Pui Lan’s permission. Click here for the original post.
Last Saturday night I went to an emergency room in Evanston, Illinois. I had spasms on my right chest. Luckily it was on the right side and not the left side (where the heart is located). Since I needed to fly back to Boston the next morning, the nurse I spoke to at my primary care doctor’s office advised me to go to the ER to make sure I was all right.
I am a relatively healthy person. This was the second time I have gone to an emergency room. The first time was almost ten years ago when I had vertigo. I was very fortunate that my colleague Gale Yee attended the conference in Evanston with me and she kindly accompanied me to the ER.
I didn’t know having chest pain would give me some privileges at the ER. I didn’t have to wait and was swiftly seen by a nurse assistant, who checked my vital signs. Then the health care professionals did the ECG, took chest x-rays, and ordered the blood tests.
I was not very nervous since I did not have sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, and other symptoms of a heart attack. But fear crossed my mind when I gave Gale my spouse’s cell phone number, just in case.
Thank God, my ECG, x-rays, and blood work were normal, except for low potassium. I was able to board the plane the next day to go home.
What happened in the next few days was a learning experience. For first of all, I had to find out what caused the spasms.
I googled chest pain and chest spasm on the right side and found so much materials. Websites like the Mayo Clinic’s provide very detailed and useful information on all forms of chest pain. But what I benefit most are those forums in which patients share their symptoms, treatments, and results. These completely unknown strangers suddenly seem like friends to me and I am not so alone.
Pain makes us connect with our body in a special way. Pain is difficult to describe. People who have not had debilitating muscle spasms might sympathize with you, but they might not fully comprehend how you feel. For example, one person in a forum said that finding other people suffer from similar pain made her feel that she was not insane.
It was difficult for my doctor to diagnose since I did not have symptoms associated with heartburn or acid reflux at the time, and the pain was located under the right collarbone. My doctor prescribed muscle relaxer, but it upset my stomach so much that I couldn’t sleep.
I saw that a person in one of the forums suggested putting some salt on the tongue and swallowing it. I didn’t know if it would work but I had to do something to stop the pain. So in the middle of the night, I went to the kitchen to try it. I was so tired that I dozed off afterward. It might or might not have worked.
On the next day, four little red bumps started to appear on the side of my body. At first I thought I have scratched my skin and didn’t pay attention. Then the rash spread to the back and the breast. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, symptoms of acid reflux began to develop. When I went back to see my doctor, she said I had shingles. Oh My God!
I was given medicines to treat the shingles and acid reflux, but I still needed to manage the pain. This was where Chinese medicine came in. My acupuncturist has been trained in Western medicine and she understood that shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox gets activated. But in Chinese traditional medicine, shingles is caused by heat in the liver and gallbladder. This happens when one is stressed, too tired, and the body loses its balance. Although I do not understand why it has to do with the liver and gallbladder, Chinese medical system always reminds me that the body is a wholistic system, and overall balance is important.
I thought some Tai Chi movement would help. I consulted Dr. Paul Lam’s Tai Chi exercises for beginners and for arthritis on Youtube. I have had Tai Chi lessons before and found his exercises easy for the joints and for a body in pain.
Pain in the body often brings one to a threshold, because one starts to ask many questions about the body and about life. I have always believed that sickness is the body sending a message and I have to learn to listen.
It is surprising that shingles comes during my sabbatical, when I should have more time to relax and rest. But when I look at my sabbatical proposal, I recognize that I have intended to do even more than when I am teaching, including books and projects, planning a course that involves international participants, speaking engagements, and international travels. A person half my age might have found this demanding. I need to rethink the pace of life and to set priorities and to say no to more things.
Illness has its social dimension and healing comes when one is supported by family and friends. I am very fortunate to have a strong social network. My spouse volunteered to postpone his travel if needed to take care of me; my daughter who lives in Manhattan asked if I needed her to come home. Colleagues and friends who heard about my illness sent their prayers and healing energy. Several of them who have experienced chest pains and muscle spasms told me how they have dealt with them. I am very grateful to them for their loving care.
Just as I am having these pains in my body, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook has started a national conversation on women, work, and leadership through her book Lean In. She encourages women to “sit at the table,” take greater responsibilities, and pursue their goals. She notes that sometimes women are the ones who sabotage ourselves. There is truth to what Sandberg has said because women must overcome both internal and external barriers to be able to succeed.
But I appreciate the wisdom of Arianna Huffington who says that in order to lean in, women must first lean back. By leaning back, she means taking care of our well-being, having enough sleep, and rejecting the culture of “time macho.” Huffington, 18 years older than Sandberg, learned this in a hard way. In 2007, while spending long hours at the Huffington Post, she had to cart her youngest daughter around the country for college visits. She fainted because of exhaustion and hit her head on her desk and broke her cheekbone.
Huffington wrote, “The world needs women to redefine success beyond money and power. We need a third metric, based on our well-being, our health, our ability to unplug and recharge and renew ourselves, and to find joy in both our job and the rest of our life.”
Both Sandberg and Huffington are millionaires who have a team of people to help them take care of family, children, scheduling, and other personal needs. I wonder how the corporate structures and the workplace need to change so that ordinary women, and not just wealthy and successful women, can lean in and lean back at the same time.
Before these changes happen, we have to listen to the messages of the body and develop a way to eat a healthy diet, exercise, and reduce stress. For a workaholic like me, this is not easy, because I actually enjoy doing the work I do.
This blog is not meant to give medical advice or intended to replace the advice of a doctor.