02/05/2015 03:30 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2015


Mike Powell via Getty Images

I had never been in an ambulance before -- on ice-encrusted back roads hurtling through a storm. In my flimsy flowered robe and thin slippers, with two young men frantically adjusting tubes and trying unsuccessfully to soothe me.

I asked not to know how fast my heart was beating, and they graciously granted my wish and remained mute. But the machine with its urgent neon yellow numbers refused my request and kept blinking "239" repeatedly throughout the journey to the hospital.

Inside my chest, my heart was punching angrily at my ribs like a boxing glove against bone. My throat throbbed, felt scalded; I could barely breathe. I seemed not to be able to speak or close my eyes. And then I remembered that I had forgotten to bring my glasses. It didn't really matter.

"Because I am dying," I thought. "How sad." I pictured my small grandson, almost brand-new, living halfway 'round the world, who I would now never see; the white dog standing in the doorway watching as I rode away, not having had the chance to say goodbye. And strangely, I envisioned the sweet scarlet-and-emerald hummingbird who came every year to my window feeder after flying across parts of two continents to find me. Who would feed him now?

When we finally arrived at the hospital the ER personnel, I thought, were awfully rough with someone who was dying -- ripping off my wolf necklace and Native American Indian beads from my neck, stabbing my hands repeatedly with needle after needle in search of a usable vein, shoving oxygen prongs into my nostrils, hushing me if I tried to ask a question, and binding my arm way too tightly with a strangling blood-pressure cuff.

I listened for the sound of the beads falling like rain along the floor and grabbed the doctor's hand when they injected me with a drug to stop and restart my heart. My poor heart that felt like a grenade about to explode. I wondered if he would have a permanent scar from the wound I had to have made in his palm with my fingernails.

I cried. I cried quietly for all the years my heart had beaten unabated, from its embryonic beginnings, hard-working, seemingly indefatigable, relentlessly reliable and uninterrupted in its ongoing song. But though my heart stopped only for a moment, the sensation was horrendous and did not even cut the wild rhythm by half.

"You're having a heart attack," they told me, and the numbers again jumped 30 points on the screen, cancelling out some of the good the drug had done. "Prepare yourself to be moved to another facility tomorrow for a cardiac catheterization, angioplasty or possibly surgery."

Fear is like a raging fire that is very easy to feed. I felt like my whole body was lying on a funeral pyre of their dire predictions for invasive procedures that could only look life-threatening to me in the throes of my crisis.

But in the midst of my terror, a new realization bloomed as the tears collected in my ears and soaked my shoulders, making me shiver. I realized that I was experiencing a great tenderness for myself, a deep compassion. Never before had I thought of myself as truly valuable. Now I did. The feeling was so big and so beautiful that I wanted to contain it somehow. To compress it and distill it into something tangible that I could dispense in some small way to anyone, anywhere, who also lie wondering in pain, confused and uncertain if their life has worth.

A month later, and we are still working on a clear diagnosis, but clues are coming; I am working toward recovery. In the meantime, I was able to forgive those doctors and nurses who wrongly interpreted my tachycardia as an ischemic event or an episode of infarction. I forgave them in the light of my lovely discovery that has given me new insight and new comfort, fresh joy and sweet hope.