This couldn’t really be happening to me, could it? A heart attack at age 50? There is no way! I am a relatively healthy former college athlete, avid golfer, and extremely active father of three who has never had a cigarette in my life. Sure, I may be a few pounds over my college playing weight and, yes, I love a nice steak on occasion. I will even admit to enjoying an adult beverage or two on the weekend, but heart attacks only happen to older folks, heavy smokers, and those who are out of shape and extremely overweight – or so I thought.
I am here to tell you that I was wrong, and I was very close to being dead wrong. Much to my surprise, it did happen to me, and by the grace of God, I am still around to talk about it. On Thursday, July 19th, I had a massive heart attack and was lucky to have survived. This was not like the movies. I did not have a sharp pain in my chest, fall to the ground, pass out, and wake up in the hospital. Strangely enough, I was having heart attack symptoms for a full six days, and I am embarrassed to admit that I did not take them seriously. I’m not sure if it was out of fear, laziness, stubbornness, a sense of invincibility, or plain naiveté, but I kept trying to justify the unusual sensations that I was having. I was not in pain per se, but I was certainly in discomfort. I kept trying to write off or explain away the symptoms instead of getting professional help.
I had a tightness in my back and shoulders that extended up my neck and into my jaw. I played golf the Saturday before with these symptoms and shrugged them off. The next day, I dug fence post holes in my yard in 95-degree heat to replace an old rotted fence. The sensations continued, and I thought perhaps I pulled a muscle in my back. Did I get it checked out? No, I diagnosed it myself and decided to get a massage. The discomfort did not go away. Maybe it was heartburn or indigestion, I figured, so I bought some stomach medicine in hopes of getting some relief. No luck. In my defense, the sensations would not last long and would eventually dissipate. Every time I began to get a little nervous or concerned about the symptoms, they would go away, and I foolishly moved on.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it, on that fateful day the discomfort did not go away. I didn’t feel too well after a client lunch, so I decided to return home to get off my feet and rest. The uncomfortable feelings continued, and I finally gave in and called my wife. She did not like how I sounded and decided to come home. While she had her own opinion on my symptoms and thought that it might be dehydration, she was not messing around and decided to take me to a local Urgent Care Center. Thankfully, my wife is much more “black and white” than me and instead of guessing, she wanted the opinion of an expert. This decision probably saved my life.
Once at the Urgent Care Center, an EKG was done and the doctor on duty did not like what he saw. An ambulance was summoned, and we rushed to the Emergency Room of a local hospital where a team of eight doctors and nurses were awaiting my arrival. Even at this point, I did not take the incident seriously. The doctor said they were treating this as an “active” event, and I inquired what that meant. She exclaimed that I was having a heart attack at that very moment, and they were taking me up to the “cath lab” immediately. The expression I kept hearing was, “time is tissue.”
The catheterization laboratory is an examination room with diagnostic imaging equipment used to visualize the arteries of the heart and treat any stenosis or abnormality found. Much to my surprise, I was not put under but given twilight anesthesia which made me a little loopy, but I could still hear what was going on. The team was moving quickly, communicating succinctly with each other, and repeating everything they had discovered. I had 100% blockage in the right artery of my heart and they needed to act right away. They did not have to perform open heart surgery but needed to put two stents in my heart. I was fascinated to learn that they would go through my wrist. Before I knew it, my right arm was shaved and strapped down so I couldn’t move it, and they inserted a catheter into my wrist and threaded it through my arm and chest to the blood vessels of my heart. Even though the procedure felt like it took 10 minutes, it actually took almost two hours.
The operation was a success, and I was taken to the ICU for recovery. Shortly thereafter, the doctor spoke to my wife. He told her that I had a massive heart attack and that if she did not take me in when she did, I would not have survived the evening. I am still in disbelief that it actually happened to me. I am sharing this story today not to garner your sympathy or to somehow come off as heroic that I survived this tragic event, but rather to share what I have learned from the experience to hopefully prevent it from happening to you.
First of all, you have to listen to your body. While the symptoms differ by individual, you simply cannot ignore the signs. I was extremely ignorant and stubborn like most men when it comes to physical ailments. Instead of sucking it up or coming up with flimsy excuses as to why you are in discomfort, be proactive and get it checked out. Hopefully, it is not serious and may simply be one of those other conditions you self-diagnosed, but if it is not, you and your family will be grateful that you did something.
Next, you need to take better care of yourself. A heart healthy diet and daily exercise is so important. I had always believed in this mantra but had gotten away from it as I aged. Life got in the way. Needless to say, this incident was a huge wake-up call for me. I didn’t realize just how bad my diet had gotten with fast food, processed foods, and empty calories along with too many carbs, too much sodium and sugar, and not enough fruit, vegetables, and fish. I have begun this new regime and have already lost 15 pounds since I left the hospital just two weeks ago. I am not on a diet but have changed what I put in my body as I can’t afford to go back to my old ways. I will soon be going through cardiac rehab where I will begin monitored exercise. My heart was damaged, and I need to build back its strength under supervision. While the rehabilitation will last 12 weeks, an exercise program of some sort will be part of my life from now on. I learned a valuable lesson and was given a second chance, and I would be foolish not to take full advantage of it.
Finally, I learned that life is short and can be taken away from any of us in a moment. While I was transported in the ambulance with tubes in my arms and wrists and the sirens blaring, I thought about how much I had to live for. I thought about how blessed I was to have a loving family, a loyal group of caring friends, and a supportive team of colleagues at work who were concerned about my health and well-being. I decided that I need to slow down, stop sweating the small stuff, and appreciate each and every day on this Earth as a true gift.
I sincerely hope that you will not have to learn these life lessons the hard way as I did, that my story will resonate with each and every one of you, and that you will take my words to heart. Pun intended.