For hours, Chuck Chiasson had pain and tightness in his chest. He chalked it up to having heartburn, but he was actually having a heart attack.
Last Friday, the Liberal MLA for Victoria-La Vallée spoke before the New Brunswick Legislature in Fredericton, picked up some groceries at Costco and then drove two hours to Grand Falls, where he ran a few more errands, stopped in to see his daughter, and then to see his parents-in-law before going home.
That whole time — from 2 p.m. until about 10 p.m. that day — he thought he was having a bad case of heartburn and didn't think much of the discomfort.
"I did a few errands before I left Fredericton and I headed home, and I thought it would go away," said Chiasson, who is 62. "I took a few antacids and thought it would be fine," Chiasson said.
"Around Woodstock I stopped for a coffee. I thought that might help. I still had what I thought was indigestion. But then I was starting to wonder, I guess.
"And I made it home, you know, but all the way I was thinking 'Where's the next hospital?' Just in case, you know, this gets worse."
By the time he realized it was something far worse, his heart was racing at more than 120 beats per minute, and he couldn't stand up.
His wife called an ambulance, which took him to the Grand Falls General Hospital, followed by a trip to the Edmundston Regional Hospital, then an air ambulance ride the next afternoon to the Saint John Regional Hospital.
He's now in stable condition and waiting for open-heart bypass surgery, which is scheduled for Friday.
"I feel very fortunate that, you know, all of the events happened to get me to where I needed to be from Grand Falls to Saint John in a matter of a day. And then, you know, having a heart attack on one Friday and getting your surgery to correct everything the next Friday."
Body gave warnings for months
Chiasson said the tightness in his chest wasn't the first warning sign he'd ignored.
For months prior, he said, he'd noticed his body was sending him signals, such as when he'd become unusually out of breath when exercising.
The stress of the pandemic is one factor he suspects contributed to the heart attack.
Since it began, he said, he's been working evenings and weekends to help constituents navigate restrictions around transporting goods, or getting exceptions for people to come into the province to see dying loved ones.
He's been even more stressed lately by the COVID-19 outbreak at the Pavillon Beaulieu special care home in Grand Falls, where six people have died from the disease.
Meanwhile, he suspects his family history of heart disease is also to blame.
Looking back, Chiasson said he should have sought help sooner, and wants to warn others to not ignore the early signs of a potential heart attack like he did.
"It wasn't smart of me to to drive from Fredericton to Grand Falls with chest pains, you know. But again, I was in denial. I wasn't listening to what my body was saying."
Advice from a cardiologist
Dr. Peter Guerra, chief medical officer at the Montreal Heart Institute, said it's not uncommon for a heart attack to present with more subtle symptoms like those Chiasson felt.
"Some people have chest pain, and often their chest pain is described as a squeezing pressure-like feeling on the chest," Guerra said.
"It can go into the jaw, it can go into the arms. Sometimes it can be associated with palpitations or shortness of breath, and sometimes, as you described, can be a feeling of just a malaise in the chest, which could feel like a heartburn."
Guerra said anyone who feels any of those symptoms should head straight to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.
"I have to say that during the pandemic … people have been neglecting their symptoms because they don't want to go into an emergency room because they're afraid to catch COVID. And that should be the furthest thing from people's minds."
Chiasson said the open-heart bypass surgery he's set to undergo will treat several blockages he has in two arteries that send blood to his heart.
"Obviously, nobody wants to have open-heart surgery, but I feel like I'm in good hands. I've spoken with the surgeons and they're very confident here, and the care here is second to none," he said.