A little over a year ago, I woke just past midnight sweating, my breathing labored. Neither concerned me.
The chest pain did.
I stood, and amazed myself. "This can't be a heart attack," I thought. Wouldn't I be writhing on the floor like a fish on a boat deck? Wouldn't I be bent double, fist clutching my chest literally hanging on for dear life?
I'd gawked as my father suffered a heart attack in 1968. While his face twisted like barbed wire in a tornado, he grasped his chest as though trying to pull the agony out, failing miserably. From a sitting position in his favorite easy chair, he'd curl one way into the fetal position, then the other before sliding onto the floor, fighting to climb back on.
He survived. Barely, spending six weeks in the hospital and four months away from work and another six months working no more than half days.
I grabbed three aspirin from the medicine cabinet and dry-swallowed them, knowing from my scuba instructing days that they would thin my blood and lessen the severity of the heart attack.
If it was a heart attack.
It couldn't be a heart attack.
My father had been 37 years old and in reasonably good shape
I turned 58 the previous September, morbidly obese with gallstones. Why-the-hell couldn't it be a heart attack?
I went to my own recliner to relax the pain away. That's all I needed to do right? Take it nice and easy for a while until the anxiety left in a huff. I focused first on my breathing. Long, slow, deep breaths. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. In and out.
I regained control of my lungs to some extent, but the sweat still poured down my forehead and cheeks and my chest still hurt. I went to my laptop and looked up the symptoms for heart attack.
Ah! Squeezing chest pain! Hey, not me. It hurts like hell, but no squeezing. No, sir. Not a bit. Pain shooting down the left arm? No sale. Not this kid. Just my chest hurt. Not my left arm. No squeezing.
And then ...
"If you experience severe chest pains, even with no other symptoms, seek immediate medical attention."
I poured a glass of wine and headed back to the easy chair, chest still hurting, looked at the phone sleeping on the side table and wondered whether to call 911?
Or wait it out?
I decided to wait half-an-hour. If the chest pains didn't ease, I would call. If they worsened during that half-an-hour, I would call.
Otherwise, I could keep my paranoia in check. I finished the first glass of wine and poured another.
In the meantime, I thought about my father and how frightened he had been even while ordering my ten-year old self not to call for an ambulance.
After half-an-hour of no improvement, I gave into the inevitable and called 911, my face burning with humiliation.
How could I let this happen to me? How could I have eaten so much and drank so much that it turned me into a human haystack.
"What is the nature of your emergency?"
"I'm having check pains."
After confirming my address, the kind, sympathetic woman assured me that help was on the way, and that I should unlock and open my door. I unlocked it, but I had no intentions of opening it until they arrived. My cat Captain Hook might get out and, at his age, would be mauled before the ambulance made it half way.
I would not take that risk.
The blaring siren at a little past one o'clock in the morning signaled the arrival of the ambulance. The rapid, loud footfall on the stairs signaled help.
The paramedics had arrived.
I had anticipated two, with a driver waiting down in the ambulance. I got super service. Six burly firefighters (who doubled as paramedics) ready for anything entered my humble abode.
Captain Hook hightailed it to the back of the apartment with the usual hitch in his gitalong, most likely winding up under the bed.
While I tried to relax, two of the burly men hooked me up to a gaggle of wires while a third checked my pulse asking me how I felt, how severe the pain had become, all the predictable questions, to which I gave appropriate replies.
After about ten minutes of prodding, poking, and bad joking, the head guy, standing a good six feet four inches, said, "Mr. Hatley, I can't stand here and tell you that you aren't having a heart attack. It's your call, but I would suggest having it checked out in the hospital ... tonight."
I opened my mouth to say something brilliant and life changing, but shut it tight and nodded, fighting hard to hold back fear tears.
Lord, was I scared.
At my rather rotund 327.5 pounds (148.558 kilograms and 23.392 stones) at every inch of five feet seven and a half inches tall, it took all six of the burly men to carry me to the gurney just outside my door, put me on, strap me in and negotiate it down the stairs featuring a hairpin turn.
Once in the ambulance one of the men handed me a tiny pill and said, "Put that under your tongue."
I recognized the pill, though it had been decades. "Nitroglycerin?"
He nodded. "Just put it under your tongue."
I smiled. "My father used to carry these around in a case that looked like a fountain pen."
"You have a family history of heart disease?"
My mind half traveled back to him writhing in his easy chair. "He had a massive heart attack when he was 37."
"Is he still living?"
I shook my head.
I shook my head. "Brain tumor."
"How about your mother? Still living?"
I shook my head. "Cancer."
"Two. One living."
"What happened to the one who isn't?"
"My sister. Complications from diabetes."
A tear broke free from the corner of my eye and rolled down toward my ear. "Type one."
Every word out of my mouth seemed to seal my fate. Except that by the time we reached the hospital the chest pain had vanished like a morning fog.
"Guys," I said. "The pain's gone."
The ambulance came to a screeching halt.
"All right. Let's get you in."
I didn't understand. The pain had departed. I needed to go to work later on with not much time left for sleep.
Before I could even ask if they would take me home because it had clearly been a false alarm, they had me isolated behind curtains replacing one gaggle of wires with another, paying no attention to me.
I heard a rapid blip, blip, blip from behind and understood that they now had the heart monitor set up. The nurse then kindly muted the volume so I wouldn't be drawn to the beating of my own heart. One hitch in the rhythmic blips, and I might panic.
By three o'clock in the morning, I texted my boss, laying it on thick, mentioning that I had landed in the ER with chest pains and that they would be running some tests and that I wouldn't be into work.
I felt a bit guilty for having embellished the situation until I asked for some water.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," the nurse said. "We can't give you anything by mouth."
"The cardiologist will want to run tests."
"So I'm not going home?"
She offered me a wan smile. "Not tonight. We're in the process of getting you a room."
"The chest pains went away," I said, with more desperation than I intended.
"Right after you took nitroglycerin, sweetie. And you have a family history of heart disease and Type 1 diabetes. That's why we're admitting you."
Sweetie. I felt like a customer in a cheap diner.
"Just lay back and try to get some sleep while we sort you out."
Sort me out. Now, I felt like a Jack in a deck of cards.
For the next fourteen hours, I became a laboratory specimen. Drained of blood and urine, sonogramed, stress test injected, and CaT scanned with attached panels that showed me the true depths of claustrophobia.
My room served as a weigh station.
All the while I wondered why the world had done this to me. The ginormous meals, the massive quantities of wine. I scrunched my eyes closed in shame thinking about how many days off I wasted by pulling the cork on a bottle of wine at six in the morning, and staring absently at the television not remembering what I had watched ten minutes after it ended.
Wasn't I a decent person?
At about five o'clock the next afternoon, the cardiologist came in. I don't know why I expected someone older, or why I did a double take at this man's youth.
"Mr. Hatley," he said walking up to the bed. "Your heart is fine. Excellent, especially considering your weight. You did not have a heart attack."
I sighed with palpable relief, and horrible embarrassment.
"I'm so sorry. I should have just sucked it up a little while longer at home."
He stepped closer to the bed and put his hand on my arm. "I would like to introduce you to a couple of people who sat in the same chair you did once upon a time. Chest hurting. Sweating. Frightened. Facing the same decision you had. Only they didn't call. I'd like to introduce you to them, but I can't because they're dead. You did exactly what you should have done, and if it happens to you again, you do exactly the same thing."
I wiped a tear away.
He told me to see my primary care physician within a week and to schedule an appointment with him within two.
I did so.
Both physicians suspected that my gallbladder had been the culprit. A gallbladder attack, they said, can mimic a heart attack. A sonogram confirmed it, the official report saying that it had become "sludge."
Even before I could follow-up with the cardiologist, a surgeon called to schedule an appointment to discuss removing my gallbladder. I didn't realize that in the beginning, because the first word of her subtitle on the Internet read "Bariatric." I knew that word well. It was surgery for fat people not strong enough to pull their britches up and lose the weight.
I swallowed, finally understanding that I had done this to myself.
My view of the world had merely been the catalyst.
I recalled having been weighed in the hospital, and how the technicians made rueful faces as the arrow finally balanced well past the three hundred pound mark.
I longed to say to those disappointed faces, "I'm so sorry I did this to myself, and that you have to pick up the pieces." But they weren't the folks I needed to apologize to. To find that person, I needed to look into the mirror.
—To be continued—
Rocky Hatley has been a Screen Actors Guild Member for over 25 years. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee more years ago than he would like to think about, and, as a child, was held by Elvis Presley. Raised in Texas, USA, he's a massive fan of music, plays guitar, and has the most amazing celebrity stories ever. Rocky is a passionate writer currently working on a novel loosely based on his experience as a SCUBA diving instructor. He is the co-writer of two plays produced at Manhattan South Theatre in Orlando, Florida. Barstruck and Bedtime Stories each enjoyed successful six-month runs. Rocky appeared in both. In his life he has, at times, been too thin and too heavy. This is an article about Rocky's journey to follow the lead of Goldilocks and find the "just right."