Six months ago to the day (March 17 – St Patrick’s Day) I had my first heart attack. I say that like I’m expecting more and I guess I might be but if there are more, I’m planning on them being a long time into the future. Of course, you never know – that’s part of the point of this writing. I wasn’t expecting it. I knew the possibility was there. My dad had his first heart attack in his early to mid-forties and died at age forty seven. All his brothers had heart attacks or strokes and died young, one (Uncle Russell) died even before I was born. It carried into my generation too. My brother had a heart attack in his late forties and had open heart surgery in his early fifties. He died a little over three years ago at age sixty-one. I was reminded of all this as it was his sixty-fifth birthday today. I guess the thought of me having a heart attack would be a logical thing.
I figured living my life differently would be the difference. It seems I was really the only person on my dad’s side of the family that really focused on living a healthy life. I think it was my family history in the back of my mind that drove me. I have always been a big person but always active and always in pretty good shape. I didn’t smoke or drink and over time I modified my diet to be better than what my family members typically followed. Per a suggestion from a doctor, I was even taking an aspirin a day just because of my family history. Twice, over the past 15 years, I had completed a stress echocardiogram to try and get a sense of how my heart was working – again – because of a doctor recommendation due to my family history. Of course, each time everything looked good.
I was at work on St Patrick’s Day having a typical work day which included my typical workout around lunch time. My noon workout consisted of running up and down 11 flights of stairs (I work in a 12-story building), 30 minutes on the exercise bike (can’t run – torn meniscus), core exercises consisting of a lot of abdominal exercises and some pushups, wrapping up with another run up to the twelfth floor and back. Not bad for a healthy 57 year old. After my workout, I was eating my lunch at my desk and getting on a group call with customers and the rest of my work team. I was the only one in my office on this call. I’m always warm after my workout and I sweat a little bit (sorry –gross – I do shower afterwards) but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t stop sweating. I didn’t have pain, I just couldn’t stop sweating. I didn’t feel right. I couldn’t get comfortable. Some of my colleagues in the office noticed that I didn’t look right either – evidently my color was gray (not my usual color) and very scary looking. I had one of them find me a couple of aspirins as I heard that was good thing if you thought you might be having a heart attack. But this couldn’t be a heart attack, right? I didn’t have any pain and I was in great shape. Eventually I agreed to have one of my coworkers to call 911. The paramedics were there quickly and checked my heart. The guy checking my heart said, “well, you’re going for a ride – you are in full cardiac arrest”. They started me on nitroglycerin and hauled me down to the ambulance and I was on my way to the hospital. I hardly enjoyed the speeding vehicle part since so much was going on.
As I was riding to the hospital, now on my second nitroglycerin tablet, I had a realization that I could die at any moment. I could just turn off. I had that moment of deciding if I was ready to meet my maker and decided that if I had to go, I was ready. The next emotion that swept over me was pure anger. I was in tears! I was so mad that I was having a heart attack. I was so ‘pissed’ (sorry for the term but I was really enraged at that point) that after all these years of working out, no smoking, no drinking, no bad foods (no fun!), I was having a freaking heart attack! After all this work that I had done, my heart was shot! Just like my dad’s and my brother’s, my heart was so bad that my heart was irreparable. After a burst of tears and emotion, I realized that I may be over-assuming some things and that, if I survive, maybe it wouldn’t be quite as bad as I thought. I arrived at the hospital as I was dissolving my third nitro-tablet under my tongue.
Everything was moving fast at the hospital as they began working on me. I was awake and talking to the doctors and nurses as they were working their magic. With a scan of my heart they found that I had only one blocked artery (which ‘only one‘sounds minimal but I’m sure it wasn’t’) and that my other arteries were normal. They inserted a stent through my wrist instead of through my groin (amazing how they continually are coming up with better and less invasive ways to fix people) and opened my blocked artery – I would live. They rolled me to a room where I saw my lovely but very concerned wife waiting for me. I wanted to comfort her and let her know that I was okay and everything would be alright. I wanted to tell her that – but I couldn’t. I was unable speak. It wasn’t because I was overcome with emotion – it was because I was having a stroke! Holy Cr*p, when would this nightmare end? My wife told them, “there’s something wrong here -he can’t speak!” Back into action they went. Now they had to do another scan – this time on my head, not my heart. It wasn’t long before I was able to get words to come out of my mouths and most importantly, they were the words I was trying to say. By the time I was returned to my wife in the hospital room, everything felt and seemed back to normal. Evidently when they put the stent into my heart, some plaque had likely broken loose and had gone to my brain and caused the stroke. The upside of this is that it was a small stroke, also known as a TIA (transient ischemic attack), which shows no large scale permanent damage. I would not only live but I would have the same functionalities that I had before this medical episode (they call these crazy things that happen ‘episodes’ in the medical community). All would be okay but I would never look at life the same way.
I was in the hospital for 2 more days but that was made shorter since a nurse that had a guitar in her office loaned it to me so I was able to (hopefully) entertain the people living in and working in the cardiac ward. I learned a great deal over those two days with visits from very knowledgeable people discussing my brain, my heart, my diet, my prescriptions (it was obviously all about me). I began working again on Friday (my heart attack occurred on Tuesday afternoon) and first thing Monday morning, I began with my first session in cardiac rehab. I was in much better physical condition than most people that are in cardiac rehab so I was able to move ahead quickly although they were careful that I didn’t advance too fast. It wasn’t just about doing my workouts (cardio, weights, stretching), I also learned a great deal more about how my heart works, how it repairs, and how I would have to continue to make it better. Two months after my heart attack, my cardiologist told me that I no longer had any restrictions (I could start running stairs again) and did not have to do any more cardiac rehab. After my heart attack, I was started on 4 prescriptions plus a baby aspirin. At my 2-week follow-up, they removed one as unnecessary since my blood pressure was already lower than necessary. At the 2-month follow-up, the dosage of one of the remaining 3 was cut in half again due to my lower blood pressure. I go back for a 6-month follow up next month and will also follow up with the cardiologist after a year. The biggest win is probably that it has been determined that I have no detectable damage to my heart. My heart was not testing great right after the attack but had recovered by the time I was discharged from the hospital.
Even with all the things I did right (and I admit I didn’t do everything right all the time but I did pretty good), I still had this medical explosion in my life. I did overreact a bit while riding in the ambulance, my heart wasn’t shot; that was because of the way that I did take care of myself over the years. I have been assured that the health decisions I made did shape the outcome of what has transpired for me this year but it couldn’t keep me from having it happen at all. It was a ‘gift’ from my father. Genetics do play a huge role in things that occur. From what I have learned, I also am reminded that the actions we take also have a great impact on things that occur. I couldn’t avoid having that heart attack and I didn’t see it coming. However, my quick recovery, the limit of my blockage to only one artery, and my ability to survive my heart attack at the time was likely due to the life that I have chosen to live. I am very, very fortunate that I continue to live to tell this story as I see and hear more and more stories of people unexpectedly ending their human experiences with an early death. Due to this glitch, I know more about me that I did before and have a greater appreciation for life and living it fully than I would have had without my father’s gift.
Take life as it comes and appreciate its fullness when it is given.