One morning last November, I thought I might be having a heart attack. I had gotten up to ride the spin bike at about 7 AM. That was going well. I was riding at a very comfortable, normal speed for me. I wasn’t sweating or breathing hard. I had been exercising regularly and only increasing my overall weekly exercise schedule a little at a time. Then, about 10 minutes into my biking that morning, I began to have a strong sharp pain in my left, upper chest.
The first thing to come into my head was to tell God that this was really not a good time for me to die. I had never had a heart attack before, though I do have a lifelong history of heart palpitations. I happen to know my grandma lived with those happening to her until the age of 94, and she did not die from heart issues. But my mom had died from brain cancer just a couple of months prior and I explained to Him that I thought it was a bit too much for the family right now. And I kept riding.
I was not just being stubborn, though. I was evaluating. I still wasn’t short of breath at all. There was no pain radiating to my arms. I was not nauseated and I felt no sense of doom. Well, other than wondering if I was dying; but there was no overwhelming sense of catastrophe. Just irritation. I had things to do.
I noticed that it hurt significantly more when I took in a breath. In fact, it almost went away between inhalations, other than the lingering sensation that sharp pain often leaves. Still, breathing is a pretty regular thing, so the pain was dependable. After 30 minutes, I decided I was morally obligated to tell my husband. He was still sleeping in bed a few feet away from the spin bike (I had his consent to ride while he slept due to schedule issues. He does it sometimes when he has to be up before me, too.)
With a calm voice, and while still riding the spin bike, I spoke his name to quietly rouse him, then said, “I think I need to tell you that I am having some odd chest pain.”
He looked at me in his usual level way and said without any excitement, “Maybe you should get off of the bike.”
I declined to do that immediately, explaining all my observations about my situation, but after another 10 minutes or so, I stopped, took a shower, and got busy with some household chores.
The pain seemed to alter and moderate with changes in position and various motion, and dulled slightly overall over the next couple hours. However, around 10:30 AM I was getting ready for an appointment and went into his office to see him. I stood there for a minute, not quite sure what was wrong. I just felt like I was going to have an emotional moment for no apparent reason. I explained as best I could that for some reason I just really did not feel like leaving the house. He pointed to the large floor pillow near his desk and told me to lay down. I did so and slept for almost 4 hours.
When I woke up, I noticed that the pain was still there, but definitely felt better when I lay on one particular side. I decided it was wise to cancel my other appointment for the afternoon, so contacted the friend involved via Facebook chat. Being careful not to unduly alarm her, I explained what I was dealing with. She surprised me by saying something like, “That sounds just like what my husband had a short while back. Pleurisy. He went into the emergency room because he thought he was having a heart attack. They just sent him home to rest.” The fact that her husband is a healthy early 30something made me feel less wimpy about the whole thing.
I did not remember much about pleurisy from nursing school, so I got online and read several medical websites. I concluded that the cold virus going around was probably the cause. Pleurisy is a broad description for anything that causes irritation between the linings of the lungs. Comforting to me was the fact that it is not inside the lungs. Nothing like pneumonia. Another important fact was that I did not have a fever. It looked like what I needed was rest, so that is what I did for a few days.
It took a couple of days for the pain to disappear, then another couple of days for me to not feel exhausted. I was able to continue to eat well. Mercifully, my sleep was easy to obtain, since there were none of the familiar congestion with a cold, though it was likely “just” a cold virus. We decided I was recovered enough to go with my husband on his short business trip as planned. The tickets had already been purchased and it was in Florida.
I didn’t take up any of my regular exercise yet, but with walking in airports, shopping in renowned outlet malls, and walking to restaurants, I was getting fresh air. Unfortunately, after 3 days of this, the pleurisy pain resurged. I was down flat for a day, but the pain went away more quickly and I made it home without difficulty the following day. Once home, I gave it a few more days, then gradually began increasing my running, spin biking, and swimming again.
During the late winter and early spring, I worked up to running 14 miles, but kept the bike and swimming fairly constant. I never felt I was straining or pushing myself too hard. I was getting plenty of sleep and eating well, with most of my meals being homemade as usual. I caught another cold that was going around, but seemed to be better in about a week. Then, it surprised me by recycling itself into a sinus infection, something I have not had in many years. It was not a bad sinus infection though, as I never felt tired from it and was happy to get back to running, etc. I increased my long runs to 16 miles without pushing myself hard. Then, I started tapering for the half marathon coming up in two weeks. So it was with some shock that I noticed a pain in my chest about 11 days ago.
At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, as it did not begin as sharply. I just knew that I was about 4 miles into my 8 mile run and it was starting to hurt when I inhaled and in the exact location it had hurt before. Thinking, or wishing, I might be imagining things, I tried to swim the scheduled 20 minutes. I could only make it 10 minutes because the pain now radiated to my back shoulder blade area and it hurt so sharply that I couldn’t force myself to turn enough to get my face out of the water to breath!
Having never had pleurisy in my life before late last year, I was upset. At that time, I had tried to find a good balance between letting my body rest long enough to recover and getting back to my normal life. Now, here I was getting “it” again. I reminded myself that once an area of the body gets sick, it is often more susceptible for a while. This happened to me in college when I got bronchitis. For a couple of years, every time I got a cold, it settled deeply in my chest and it hurt terribly to cough.
That was the one thing that was different with the pleurisy this time around. I had a consistent cough and, oh boy, did it hurt to cough. I would try to brace my whole upper front and back somehow every time, and I was coughing every couple of minutes. The coughing made it harder to fall asleep, but thankfully it didn’t interrupt my sleep often.
Over a week, I very, very gradually felt the pain diminish. My husband and I both researched everything again to evaluate. We agreed that it was almost certainly viral pleurisy, so going to see a doctor was not going to be useful. Everyone in the family helped with things so that I could rest. By the following Friday, it finally didn’t hurt at all to take a deep breath. On Saturday, I still needed a solid nap, but I tested the spin bike for 30 minutes and felt better for it.
Now it was one week until this scheduled half marathon. I found myself doing mental battle with it, until I let myself realize that I didn’t have to run it. To make myself feel better, I double checked this with dear husband, as it was already paid for. He assured me that, of course, I didn’t have to run it. I felt a load lift and strangely found I could now consider running it without that feeling of panic.
But, could I run 13.1 miles after not running or exercising at all for 10 days? I had to test the legs some, and also see if just running stressed my lungs out enough to let the virus get another foothold. I did still have a canker sore that seemed to be related to the whole affair. My husband agreed that it was okay for me to try 5-6 miles. So, Monday, yesterday, I ran 6.2 miles and felt like I could have run more, but was also happy to stop at that distance. When I confessed how far I had run, my husband’s smile was a mix of indulging and disapproving, but the extra distance wasn’t enough over to get me in trouble. I knew running farther would not help me on race day and might tire me out. I was encouraged that it was one of the best post-illness runs I have had.
The last run before the race will be a 3 miler three days prior. I will also swim and bike just a bit to keep things loose and the blood flowing. It has all got me thinking about if anything has really changed about my health. I wondered if the training “load” has done anything to put me at risk. Since I haven’t been journaling about my illnesses or training my whole life, I only have my recollections to go on. What I decided is that I am just more bothered by my illnesses because they interrupt my goals. When I wasn’t training for specific events, I would just rest and then resume my exercise routines with little thought beyond staying in decent shape.
There is also perverse comfort in knowing it is not just me getting sick. Everyone in town is complaining of the same viruses and with similar symptoms, with the exception of the pleurisy factor, which I have no reason to believe is anything more than luck of the draw. It may be that people I don’t know have had this as well. I do know that even without the pleurisy, it was taking many people a long time to recover from this spring virus. There is the possibility that I might have been worse off if I was not strong in lung and circulation from the exercise. There is at least no reason to blame my illness on exercise.
What I do know for sure is that I can start again from where I am now. I will enjoy it more if I don’t get mired down in the unavoidable and unpredictable bad stuff that happens. I was depressed for a while, thinking of my previous hard work and goals. I might not run “as well” as I might have before being sick, but I will run as well as possible for what life has dealt me. And I will choose to have fun doing it.