Voices: The important health sign more people need to recognize like Prince Harry did

 (AFP/Getty/The Independent)
(AFP/Getty/The Independent)

One day on my way home from work, I thought I was having a heart attack.

I was only 23, but the experience had all the hallmarks of a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating. The symptoms worsened the more I thought about them. I gasped for air discreetly as I commuted home on the train, sure I would die right there on my seat with only strangers around to witness.

Terrified and confused, I texted my friend, who was studying to become a doctor. When I shared my symptoms, she told me to go straight to the emergency room.

A nearby urgent care was closer, so I got off the train and had an Uber drop me off. My friend told me to let the person at the front desk know my symptoms as soon as I walked in. "They'll see you right away," she promised.

I went up to the desk and said what my friend had instructed: "I'm having chest pain and I can't breathe." It turns out she was right - that combination of symptoms meant no wait time. The nurses took me straight back to an exam room, no questions asked.

As they hurriedly checked my vitals, the questions started. I don't remember any of them, but at some point while they were talking and doing tests, I burst into tears.

They stopped, looked at each other, then at me. It was clear I was in no immediate medical danger after all. One of the nurses leaned in. "Have you ever had a panic attack before?"

“No, never. I don't think so.”

"I think you're having a panic attack," she said gently.

A panic attack? I shook my head. I hadn't felt particularly worried about anything that day. But I really didn't know much about anxiety at that point. I had also been running on about three hours of sleep, plenty of caffeine and a yet-to-be-diagnosed eating disorder.

"No, I really can't breathe," I told them, insistent and a little annoyed. Obviously I was having a heart attack, or at least some kind of health emergency, and they were just sitting here telling me it was all in my head.

But eventually I realized the nurse was right; I actually could breathe just fine and didn't need oxygen. I was talking to them and didn't have trouble communicating what was going on. But instead of being irritated that I'd come in complaining of life-threatening symptoms I did not have, the nurses were kind to me. They continued to be patient and given my fragile state, their gentleness meant everything.

According to reports, in his new memoir Spare, Prince Harry explores his own experience with panic attacks. He describes still having to attend events and even speak at them, much to his dismay. Back then, anxiety was rarely discussed - and certainly not among members of the royal family.

I'm lucky the nurses at urgent care that day recognized what was going on, but many people suffer panic attacks not understanding the root cause. Now that I know more about anxiety, I've come to understand that the shortness of breath I had felt years before in high school was likely also an anxiety symptom; I just had no idea. Thanks to Prince Harry, maybe more people will be able to recognize their anxiety for what it is and get the help they need.

Even just a few years ago, people didn't discuss mental health issues as much as they do now. While anxiety has become almost a buzzword over the last couple years, with nervousness of all levels being referred to as the disorder, it wasn't always this way. I used to talk about my panic attacks in whispers and with a rose-colored face, like calling my mental illness by name, out loud, would cause people to see me in a different light. But I was the same person I'd always been. I just had a name for my ever-so-often inability to breathe - and it didn't mean a trip to the emergency room.

I'm glad society is at a point now where words like "anxiety disorder" and "panic attack" can be used without needing to blush or make excuses. They're nothing to be ashamed of. And whether you're a royal prince or just an everyday American like me, you deserve care and support.