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November
10
2020

Promising prognosis

On October 24, 2020, I had an echocardiogram (ultrasound of my heart) done. As the technician moved the transducer around for different views, I watched the screen to see if I could detect any improvement compared to the echo I had before my hospital discharge. It seemed as though the apex/bottom tip of my heart had only improved slightly, if at all. In July it was described as akinetic (not moving), and now to my untrained eye, it still looked as though it wasn't contracting much with the rest of the left ventricle walls. 

I met with my cardiologist Dr. Emily Hass on October 29 for my three month follow up. She reported that she was "pleasantly surprised" by the echo results, and that my heart function had improved. The ejection fraction was now calculated to be 50-55%, which is within 'normal' range. There is a patch of my heart apex that sustained permanent damage; it's now described as hypokinetic (less movement than normal), but the good news is that no blood clots have formed in that ventricle, and I was allowed to stop taking the anticoagulant Warfarin (Coumadin).

Dr. Hass also told me that the muscular wall affected during my heart attack had -- as she expected -- thinned somewhat. She wants to be sure that there is no bulging there, as that could potentially become an aneurysm. Due to the limitations of an ultrasound exam, it was not possible to get a clear view of the apex of my heart, so Dr. Hass ordered a cardiac MRI. The results of the MRI will give us more (hopefully reassuring) information. My MRI is scheduled for November 18.

In other news, I have completed all 36 of my prescribed cardiac rehab appointments! (See the selfie I took with the exercise physiologists on my 'graduation' day.) As was my goal, I was able to add jogging to my workouts. I hate running on a treadmill, but it did prepare me to resume my every-other-day neighborhood jogs that were my routine before this cardiac adventure began in July.

Also, since the last time I posted, I painted a transformer cabinet mural in south Fort Collins. Painting is one of my favorite things!! I was so glad to get back to work for many reasons. See photos of my aspen mural I posted with this update.

I continue to learn more about SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection), which was the cause of my heart attack. It is uncommon, but not rare. More research has been done recently to better understand the condition. I joined a SCAD Survivors group on Facebook, and it's nice to be in contact with others who've had similar experiences.

 

Thank you for your continued support! I'll keep you posted on the results of my MRI.

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September
9
2020

Plugging along

It has been a while since my last journal post, so here's an update on how I am faring.

First, I want to sing praises to the wonderful folks who have brought us meals over the past five weeks! It has been an amazing gift to our family, and I really appreciate the efforts you all have made for us. Special thanks to April Undy, who set up the SignUp Genius for meal donations, and whose sage advice helped us tailor our requests. Plus, she brought us a delicious meal from Yum Yum restaurant!

Thanks also to everyone who delivered flowers to our porch, mailed "Get Well" cards, left encouraging voicemail messages, sent e-mail messages and posted responses to this CaringBridge site and my journal entries.

In mid August I started cardiac rehabilitation at UCHealth, and I've been going to workouts three times a week since then. The sessions go like this: prior to entering the "gym" each of us participants is asked Covid-19 screening questions and has our forehead temperature read. Once inside, we each get a resting blood pressure measurement and attach EKG torso stickers and wires so the exercise physiologists can monitor our cardiac activity while we exercise. I usually walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes, then use a stationary bicycle and/or an elliptical machine for another 15-20 minutes to get my heart pumping. My blood pressure gets checked at some point while I'm exercising. At the end of each session, we do a few minutes of free weights and some stretching; a final blood pressure reading is taken before we remove the EKG leads and are sent on our merry way.

I've completed 12 cardiac rehab sessions of the 36 allotted to me; I have felt fine during the workouts and can feel my strength and endurance growing. We'll gradually increase the resistance settings on the equipment so that I can get back to jogging eventually. I’m thankful for the supervision of the cardiac rehab team and the camaraderie of the other rehab patients. 

My cardiologist has cleared me for going back to work, and I expect to start painting a transformer cabinet mural on West Harmony Road in the coming weeks. In the meantime I’ll continue finding the new equilibrium for me and with my family during this work-from-home and school-at-home fall semester. :)

August
15
2020

How It Felt / Why I Went to the E.R.

I have been asked what my symptoms were and/or what prompted Doug and me to go to the Poudre Valley Hospital emergency department in Fort Collins, Colorado with the complaint of "possible heart attack" a few weeks ago. Here is my story behind all that.

First, I want to take you back to the year 2013. At the time I had a studio in the Poudre River Arts Center of Fort Collins, and I was serving as the president of our co-op, the Poudre Studio Artists. The Arts Center had been established at the north edge of Old Town Fort Collins several years earlier by realtor Mike Jensen, and our benefactor/landlord for the last few years had been Attorney Tim Hasler. 

In the fall of 2013, it became clear to the artists at the Art Center that Mr. Hasler intended to sell the facility. If the name 'Hasler' sounds familiar to you, it may be because Tim's daughter Haley Hasler is a world class artist living here in Fort Collins and serving on the Fine Arts faculty at Colorado State University. In 2013, Haley and her husband Emmanuel Didier were looking for a new home, and the timing worked for them and for Haley's father Tim to invest in an artist residence facility north of Fort Collins known as Art 342 (not coincidentally, located at 342 West Douglas Road, north of Terry Lake).

This rambling introduction will make more sense to you when I share that fellow Poudre Studio Artist (and new close friend) Micah Richardson and I decided to move into one of the art studios located at Art 342, once the purchasers of the Art Center took ownership of the facility and the resident artists would need to move out.

On January 31st of 2014, my buddy Micah and I met Haley Hasler to sign contracts for our one-year lease of a studio at Art 342. As I arrived back at my house, parked my car in the driveway, and began the 6-block walk to pick up my kids from elementary school, I noticed that I had a strange sensation in my chest. At first I thought it was from inhaling cold air as I was walking, or perhaps I was feeling the adrenaline from hurrying home and from committing to a bold new step in my career as a visual artist.

As that late January afternoon progressed, so did my symptoms; I felt pain radiating down my left arm, and also began to feel a tension/ache in my jaw. When my husband Doug arrived home from work, I told him (with rising alarm) of my symptoms and, after a phone consultation with one of Doug's colleagues, we decided it would be wise to go to the emergency room at PVH.

It's not too surprising that my blood pressure measurements taken in the ER that night were high (numerator in the 180s), but it was alarming that there was a higher than normal troponin level in my bloodstream. Troponin is a protein whose presence can indicate that a heart attack has happened. 

I was admitted to PVH and later transferred to the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland to undergo a heart catheterization. Thankfully, a heart attack was ruled out and my coronary arteries checked out as "clean as a whistle". My episode was chalked up to hypertension, possibly caused by the ADD prescription Concerta I was on at the time. I was switched to the non-stimulant ADD med Strattera, and I began taking the blood pressure medicines Amlodipine and Losartan.  Interestingly, my coronary arteries were described as tortuous or extra curvy/twisty.

Fast forward to Sunday, July 26, 2020. I had enjoyed a touching online church service that morning; "online" because of the Covid pandemic, and "touching" as evidenced by the small mound of tissues I had used to dry my tears during the service and the small group conversation afterward.

After lunch that day, I began to feel fatigued and slightly nauseus. I had an uncomfortable sensation in my chest. I retired to my bedroom upstairs and, after a long nap, I awoke feeling better. Later that afternoon, I bent over to pick up a tool for Doug who was changing a bicycle tire in the back yard. The chest sensation suddenly returned, and this time I recognized it as one of the symptoms I had experienced during my 2014 hypertensive episode. I also felt a wave of cold sweat or feverishness.

I walked inside the house and decided to check my blood pressure: 172/92. Five minutes later the reading was 171/99. I laid down on the couch to rest and to try and calm myself. After 20 minutes, my BP was 175/96. My pulse was steady at 59. Doug and I decided it would be prudent to go check my condition at the PVH emergency department. (Was I actually having a heart attack this time? Had I contracted Covid-19 which was causing scary arterial symptoms?)

The result of that Sunday visit to the ER was a reassuring (but ultimately misleading) "everything seems to be okay..." My blood pressure was high (157/101), but my EKG looked fine; the troponin level in my blood was normal, I had a normal chest X-ray, and I had started to feel better. We were sent home with instructions to schedule an appointment for an echocardiogram as soon as possible. I felt fine the rest of the evening and slept well that night.

Monday, July 27, 2020. Quiet morning in the house, as my teens were sleeping in and my husband was out for a run. I bent down to brush a twig out of my cat's tail, and suddenly all my symptoms from the previous day returned, but this time with more intensity. I laid back on the couch, but could NOT get comfortable. My chest had a strange, empty-but-pressured feeling; my forearms felt like lead, and my cold sweat persisted; my hair was soaked and and my clothes were getting damp. My heart was pounding heavily.

When Doug returned home from his run, I alerted him to my symptoms and we discussed what to do. We did not panic, due to the reassuring results from the previous night's visit to the ER. However, my discomfort continued to grow and soon we knew we had to return to the hospital. We grabbed a few last-minute toiletries, Doug helped me to the car, and we headed to UC Health / Poudre Valley Hospital for the second time in less than 24 hours.

As I recounted in my previous journal entry "A Tribe of Wonder Women and a Couple of Important XY's," as soon as I was assigned a bay in the emergency department and EKG leads were attached to my thorax, it was discovered that I was experiencing a heart attack in progress. My left anterior descending (LAD) artery had a dissection -- a tear in its lining -- that blocked blood flow to the apex of my heart. The heart tissue that was denied oxygenated blood did get damaged (it "died"), but at the time of my hospital discharge less than a week later, my EF (Ejection Fraction, or the measure of my heart function) was within "normal" range.

I received excellent care in the six days and five nights I spent in the cardiac unit of PVH, and I'll repeat how very thankful I am to benefit from modern medicine. Moving forward, I will continue to take good care of my body and my spirit, I will listen to my inner voice / ancestral wisdom, and I will take counsel from the elders and the sages of all ages in my life.

And I will continue to speak my truth boldly, as I firmly believe that by sharing my passion and my unique gifts, I will help heal some of the world's greatest needs.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Stay tuned, friends.

Love, Gale

August
15
2020

More family TLC

I was delighted to have a visit from my sister Amy Dykstra for a couple of days this week. She drove out from Minneapolis, arriving at our house Monday evening. 

On Tuesday Amy and I drove to Hygiene, CO to meet Doug at his favorite bicycle destination, the coffee shop/cafe The Mountain Fountain. It worked out for our brother Jay Mueller to meet us there, too! After Doug pedaled away to finish his bike ride, my siblings and I sat for another hour (or two??) visiting the way western Nebraska folk do. Heart healing energy for all of us, I believe :)

August
10
2020

A Tribe of Wonder Women and a Couple of Important XY's

On Monday morning, July 27, 2020, in the emergency department of Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, my husband Doug and I were informed of the awful reality that I was experiencing a heart attack in that moment.

The attending physician was Dr. Emily Elizabeth Hass. As she quickly told us what was happening and the flurry of activity around my bed intensified, I took comfort in noticing that every worker in my presence was female. Hooray for girl power!

I was soon whisked away to an operating area with Doug's voiced encouragement "You're awesome!" floating in my incredulous mind. I was kept semi-conscious while a catheter was inserted into my right wrist. I remember feeling the pain/discomfort of the beginning of the procedure, and responding to verbal questions asked of me. Dr. Hass performed my heart catheterization through my right radial artery; the cause of the acute myocardial infarction was found to be a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) in my left anterior descending artery. Translation: the lining of the artery on the front wall of my heart had torn, and the torn flap had blocked blood flow to the bottom tip or apex of my heart.

After the procedure, I was moved to a room in the Cardiac Unit on the 5th floor of the hospital. I remember having the deep recesses of my cranial cavity swabbed with a long Q-tip to check for the presence of Covid-19, though I don't know if that was before or after the heart cath. We learned a few days later that the test was negative. It was small comfort in the grand scheme of things, but reassuring news nevertheless.

Dr. Hass visited my room later that day, I think, and shared with us the findings of the heart cath she had performed on me. Doug and I agreed later that we both appreciated her clear communication style and her caring aura. She did not use overly technical terminology but she also didn't "gloss over" the details of my condition. At the same time, it was evident that she cared about my physical and emotional health.

I was to spend another five nights and five days in the hospital while the demands on my heart were lessened to allow for as much healing as possible. I was weaned off of the medication Strattera, which I had been taking to improve my focus and concentration; I was also taken off of the blood pressure medicines Amlodipine and Losartan. I was put on a continuous intravenous drip of the blood thinner heparin (later to be replaced with an oral dose of Coumadin), and I began taking Lipitor, Plavix and the beta blocker Coreg. I still have no idea what a beta blocker is.

The first day and night in the hospital were no fun. I felt disheartened (hmm, I wonder how that expression originated?) and I had physical malaise, including nausea. It was hard to get comfortable enough to sleep, and I could not find a "happy place" where I could convince myself everything would be okay. Doug was by my side as much as he could be; the Covid-19 pandemic had led to restricted visiting hours and only one visitor per patient per day allowed. But nighttime felt lonely, and my usual strategy of taking sustained, deep breaths to calm the pounding of my heart was not working for me; I could not breathe in as deeply as I wanted to, and felt chest pain when I tried.

Here I want to commend the nursing staff at Poudre Valley Hospital. Each nurse and nursing assistant/CNA was very responsive, caring and competent. Some of the nurses I particularly appreciated were Audrey, Madi, Meredith, and Abigail. Most of the healthcare workers caring for me were female, though there were terrific male workers too.

One male provider that had a critical role in my care was Dr. Pollock, the cardiologist who took over when Dr. Hass's shift ended. I noticed Dr. Pollock had a completely different and somewhat strange name (first and middle?) printed on his nametag, and I wondered at first if it had a foreign origin. (What the heck does "foreign" mean in this nation of immigrants, anyway??) The next time I encountered Dr. Pollock I looked more closely at his ID and saw that the words "Eks Wye" were printed in the name area. Wait, Eks Wye, as in "XY"? Was it a joke? Was it a name this man had given himself after a life-changing experience, or ... ?

I chuckled quietly and asked Dr. Pollock to tell me more about his name. He said it was simply a family name that had been passed down to him through the generations. He may be Eks Wye Pollack IV or V. I later learned from Dr. Hass that Dr. Pollock has a daughter whose name sounds like IV (though I don't know how it is spelled).

To make a long story short, I will say that after the first day or two in the hospital, I began to feel much better physically and emotionally. I am so thankful for today's modern medicine and -- I can't seem to stop myself from speaking my mind here -- the privilege I realize I was born into: American, white, upper middle class. Able to afford good health insurance because of my husband's income as a doctor and his career working for an ethical employer. I am grateful (and proud of myself) that I was healthy entering this current life adventure, and am optimistic that I will be/already am returning to my previously active life.

I send thanks to the Cosmos for bringing me together with my wonderful Gemini partner Douglas William Whitman, my Worrying and Middle-of-the-Night Catastrophizing, Interior-Decorating, Big-Picture Thinking, Sports Fan, Fashion Consulting and Attempting-to-Hold-the-World-On-His-Shoulders (ask him sometime about his recurring nightmare of lying under a cruise ship, feeling compelled to hold it up with one hand and paint it with the other), Dear, Dear Husband.

I'm also thankful for the tribe of feminine worriers/warriors that surrounded me literally and figuratively through my ordeal and the early hours and days of my recovery. I felt like the namesake character of the recent DC Comic motion picture Wonder Woman, who was raised by strong female relatives and mentors and, through overcoming adversity, acquired new super powers and a burning sense of purpose.

In closing, I would like to put a spin on the Marvel character Tony Stark's closing declaration in the movie "Iron Man":

I. AM. WONDER WOMAN.

August
8
2020

Family love

My dear momma Jean Mueller Yanaga came to Fort Collins Wednesday night for a brief visit. I loved the 24 hours we spent together!

Thursday was the first time after my heart attack that Doug had to be away from home for any significant period of time; it was one of his twice weekly in-clinic work days at Salud Family Health Center (the north clinic at 1635 Blue Spruce Drive). 

Mom and I enjoyed activities including some errands and thrift shopping, hanging clean laundry out to dry, a wonderful international video chat with Chandani, our sweet exchange student from Sri Lanka that lived with our family for the 1982-83 school year, and generally reinforcing our mother-daughter bond. Our thrift shopping netted a decent used hair dryer to replace my other one that no longer heats up enough for me, an additional pair of slip-on shoes for me to wear around the house, and — just for fun — a new-to-me petite coffee mug and cute denim cap :)

Still basking in the glow of familial love... Currently, the love I share with my husband and children and the love that endures between me and my momma. 

August
5
2020

Blessed Lucidity

Here we are, 9.5 days after my heart attack, and I have almost never felt better!

Okay, that's going a bit too far. How about, "I haven't felt this well in a long time!" My blood pressure is healthy, my appetite has returned, I'm sleeping decently well, and I'm feeling solid on my feet (as long as I don't whip my head around too quickly, haha). To me the most surprising aspect of my recovery, though, is my newfound MENTAL CLARITY.

I'm not exactly sure when I discovered/realized that I have adult ADD (attention deficit disorder) or -- as I like to call it -- Attention Inconsistency Syndrome. I have lots of attention; however, it's not always allocated in socially appreciated ways. :)

This special feature of mine became more noticeable to me when I married my pediatrician dance partner, Dr. Doug Whitman in 2001. Not only is he an Excellent Dancer and a Whiz with Medicine in Kids, he's also an Efficient Planner and Organizer and Solver of Problems and an Upfront Communicator and a World-Class Checker-Offer of To-Do lists. And he's Opinionated, and Decisive, and East Coast. (Doug grew up in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, PA to be specific.) So... this Big-Hearted, Smart, Artistic, Creative but Rule-Following Daydreamer Farm Girl from Rural Western Nebraska (Kimball, to be specific) began to learn of all the nature and nurture ways that she and her husband were delightfully/exasperatingly different from each other.

My dirty secret/hidden superpower of attention inconsistency syndrome (AIS) was not too much of a problem for me until I had a baby in 2003. In the past, I had always been able to kick into high gear in the last minute (late at night, usually), become hyper-focused on my goal, and produce terrific results just barely under the final deadline of my current assignment/project. Suddenly as a new mother I couldn't rely on a good night's sleep to recover from an adrenaline-laced mania the night before... In fact, I felt like I could never catch a break from the relentless demands of motherhood. The problem worsened when my baby became a 2.5 year old kid and I had another baby. That was in 2005, when I was 40 years old. My struggles manifested as depression, and I began going to mental health counseling (shout-out to Deb Westcott :)) and I began taking antidepressant medication and finding external support for my mind-wandering mind.

Fast forward to 2013. I had a studio in the Poudre River Arts Center of Fort Collins. I was establishing myself as a legitimate visual artist, specializing in public art (Pianos About Town and Transformer Cabinet Murals), expressive paintings and children's book illustrations. However, I was continuing to struggle with mental focus and depression. I had tried an array of antidepressants and was then taking the prescription medicines Prozac, and Provigil and Abilify to help me focus better. That year I also tried methylphenidate (Ritalin) for a while and Concerta (a longer acting version of Ritalin).

In January of 2014, I had a hypertensive episode that sent me to the Poudre Valley Hospital ER with symptoms of a possible heart attack. My blood pressure was in the 180s (the numerator), and the red-flag protein troponin appeared in my bloodstream; that was an indicator of a possible heart attack. I was admitted and underwent a heart catheterization at the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado. Reassuringly, my coronary arteries turned out to be "clean as a whistle" and it was confirmed that I had not suffered a heart attack. An interesting finding was that my coronary arteries were unusually tortuous (twisty/curvy), which was either an inherited configuration or the result of chronic (undiagnosed) high blood pressure. I was instructed to stop taking the Concerta and begin taking Strattera instead, and begin taking the blood pressure medicines Amlodipine and Losartan.

That brings us to the spring of 2020. How can we ever forget? That was the year that Covid-19 swept across our globe, highlighting strengths and weaknesses in our systems of support/government/power and magnifying the discrepancies between the experiences of people with money, resources and privilege, and those without. It was the year of protests against police brutality and the surge of interest/energy in the Black Lives Matter movement...

But I digress.

Where was I? Oh, yeah... MENTAL CLARITY!

In short: in recent years I had experienced repeated/chronic periods of brain fogginess, memory challenges, and the frustration that I was only rarely able to focus well enough to achieve the modest goals I was setting for myself (e.g., getting dinner on the table before bedtime). Since my heart attack 9.5 days ago, I have felt a dawning sense of clarity in the analytical and the abstract/random patterns of my thoughts. I titled this (very LOOONNNG, sorry!) journal post "Blessed Lucidity" because I am extremely relieved and grateful about the restored mental clarity that has come to me.

While I wouldn't recommend undergoing a heart attack to arrive at a state of Blessed Lucidity, I feel that for me perhaps it was the only way. I am choosing to frame my current adventure as my ANCESTRAL WISDOM rising up, getting the attention of all parties concerned, and declaring that changes needed to be made. 

Whether it was the cessation of the BP meds Amlodipine and Losartan, or the removal of Strattera, or the addition of the new stuff (I'll leave the details of my new pharmacopoeia to a future journal post), or the acuity brought about by an existential crisis, or all of the above plus "special sauce," I am happy to be HERE.

Thank you for your attention and your care.

Love and Blessed Lucidity,

Gale

August
3
2020

August 02, 2020

Today is a good day. I came home from the hospital yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, after being admitted last Monday morning. I was thrilled to be free of the IV needles and the awkwardly fitting hospital gown, and to be able to sleep in my own bed!
 
And thanks to our good family friends Erin, Stefan, Elijah and Rachel Price, we had a delicious home-cooked meal for dinner that we didn’t have to prepare ourselves. Ahhhhh. :)

But by bedtime I started feeling overwhelmed with my new medicine regimen and the realization that my home had not magically transformed into a Zen retreat while I was gone, LOL. It’s tricky transitioning from 6 days and 5 nights in the hospital!
 
Heart wise I was feeling pretty good yesterday, but my belly was unsettled. Too many curve balls in one week. So that affected my emotional state as well. 
 
Today, however, has been absolutely lovely. I have felt well emotionally and physically, and I feel that I have a handle on my medicines and my new daily routine. I’m SO grateful to have Doug as my husband, Tyson & Lilia as my above-average teenagers, and to be surrounded in the love and care of our family, friends, neighbors, work colleagues and incredible church community. 
 
I’ll keep this short so I can get it posted. I will continue to add more information, photos, personal reflections, recovery progress reports, etc. to this site, so check in often. Feel free to share with others who might be interested; please sign the guest book and come back soon!
 
- Gale
 
P.S. if you want to receive notification whenever I post something new, you can “follow” this site. You can probably customize whether and how often you want to receive alerts.