Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Heart Attack, Ack, Ack, Ack

It has been two years since my heart attack. This event certainly came as a surprise to me. I never smoked cigarettes nor did I drink alcohol.
For most of my adult life I have led an athletic lifestyle. Hang gliding, playing racquetball, running, and most recently for 20 years I was active in mountain bike racing.

It was about 5 years ago that I finally had completely given up on bicycling. I had developed some neck and back injuries that prevented me from being able to ride the long hard rides. My weight slowly climbed from 165 pounds to nearly 190 pounds.

I was trying to deal with the weight gain and was doing a little bit of running, but it was not that big of a deal to me. Now I am not sure exactly how long the chest pain events went on. It crept in so stealthily that it was easy for me to pass it off. What is crazy, is that even though I had spent most of my life employed as a respiratory therapist, I was able to pass the mild twinges in the chest as "indigestion" or "muscle spasms". As a health care provider, I had seen many patients admitted into the ER, that had complained of similar symptoms, and like me passed it off as anything but what it was. An impending heart attack.

The pains never came when I was exercising, but only when I was mostly at rest. Here is how the week preceding the "big one" went.

The week had been good. No "heart burn" or "muscle spasm". My oldest son was going to come down this day (Thursday) and we were going to go sailing on Lake Sardis in Oklahoma on my Hobie Cat. It is early morning and I go out to hook up the boat trailer and I get hit with a pretty strong chest pain. Wow! What was that! I sit down for a while and the pain subsides... I am now starting to get to the point where I can no longer deny what these pains might be. But how can that be. I was an athlete most of my life. There just has to be some other explanation. I put it to the back of my mind.

Justin was on his way and I did not want to spoil the day, so it was off to the Lake. It was probably one of the best days of sailing we have had. Strong steady winds and were were ripping the lake up. Then the pains hit again. Justin was managing the tiller and mainsail and I was jib man. I gave Justin a heads up to let him know I was not feeling well and wanted to head back to shore. He figured it was one of my migraines coming on. I was feeling pretty sure about these pains being cardiac related now and wanted to get to shore.

I am encouraging Justin to sail with best speed settings and we are in a far-reach setting with me hiked out in the harness trying to keep both pontoons in the water. We are really ripping and the pain is not subsiding. And then disaster!

The left pontoon hit a wave and started going down into the water like a submarine diving. As it is diving, Justin is trying to release the sail and turn into the wind but it is too late. The right pontoon lifted high out of the water as the boat tumbled over and I was cast through the air on the trapeze wire. Coming up out of the water, I immediately started talking Justin through the tasks that he would need to do to get the Hobie upright. Release the mainsail, release the jib, get the mast pointed into the wind. Stand on the lower pontoon and use the righting rope to lean out and pull the boat upright. He is a big boy and I new he would have the weight to do it himself while I shouted instructions. Only thing I forgot to explain was that as the boat comes down, you need to position yourself to be in between the pontoons when it rights, and not try to jump out and away. So he takes a good whack on the head. Wow! He has a strong head.

During all of this the chest pain has gone away. I think the splashdown into the cold water did something. I was feeling fine. We set course again and made it back to shore without any other incidents or chest pain. I kept it to myself as to what I was fearing about the chest pains. Maybe I would set up and appointment to see my General Practitioner next week. I simply told Justin I was feeling better and we headed on home.

My wife has been a nurse all of her adult life. I had not even mentioned to her the pains that I had been experiencing over the past few weeks. It was the following Saturday morning that all my denials and secrets came tumbling down. We are both awake in bed watching some Saturday Morning TV. I get up to go to the bathroom and bamb.... I am hit with the "Big One". Nothing like Fred Sanford's "Big Ones", but enough pain that I sat down on the side of the bed. Sue noticed and asked if something was wrong. I told her I did not feel well. I guess her being a nurse gave her a level of intuition beyond normal, and she immediately stated, "Your having a heart attack!". I guess just by my body position, she was able to tell. Or maybe she can smell heart attacks.

So it was a mad dash to the hospital which was only 4 miles away. She stops at the red light and I told her to run the red light. I was now hunched over with the pain. It was not a real strong pain, but there was no denying it now.

At the Mena Regional Health Center, they took me in immediately and rapidly had me diagnosed with angina and indeed having a "Heart Attack". Some Aspirin and Nitro Glycerin and the pain subsided. They insisted that I immediately be transferred to Little Rock where there is a center that is just for Heart Emergencies. By that evening I was in surgery having an angiogram and two stints where placed in the left descending coronary artery.

My surgeon explained that I had 100 percent blockage of the Left Descending Coronary Artery. This is usually referred to as the "Widow Maker". Very few survive a blockage of the Left Descending Coronary Artery as it provides blood to a very large amount of heart muscle. What saved me from suffering large amounts of heart damage was what is called collateral circulation. Collateral circulation is a process where other blood vessels are formed and branch out over time to supply extra blood flow to and area of the body. In my case, all my years of endurance athletics had developed a lot of collateral circulation in the heart muscle. Thus when I shut down the left descending coronary, there were some other vessels that were still providing some blood to heart muscle that is normally only fed by the left descending coronary. A few days recovery in the hospital in Little Rock and I was back home at work.

So how did this happen? Well I am 100% convinced that my diet was too blame. Sure there are genetics that may lead to a predisposition for coronary artery disease, but there was not history of this in my family. For decades, I ate a horrible diet. You know.... a normal American diet. So I eliminated the red meats, the doughnuts, the candy bars, the bacon and egg breakfasts, the soda pops, the Big Mac's. We also had to start screening food for Sodium content. It has been a challenge, but I feel a lot healthier, and my weight has dropped back down to 165 pounds.

It has been two years since my heart attack. I have felt great, and am taking my magic medicines my doctor has subscribed. Blood work looks great, and I stick to my diet with only an occasional cheat. I am hang gliding, sailing and I have even returned back to bicycling by way of a couple of recumbent bikes. One is for riding the streets and one I built myself for riding off-road on our lovely trails in Arkansas.

And the downside.... Well, I did destroy some of my heart tissue. Not a lot but that is a pretty stupid thing to let happen. My cardiac physician also explains that at the time they performed the angiogram, they also saw the other coronary arteries to be 60% occluded. He says that even despite the drugs and the exercise and the diet change that more than likely I will be looking at the prospect of these arteries occluding and possibly more surgery. Well, I am not buying that story.... I am hoping that with my good diet and exercise and all the magic pills I take, I will be able to avoid any further plaque build up in my arteries. Will I prove my good doctor wrong? I am hoping so, and I am making every effort to achieve that goal.

Lesson learned

Just because you exercise, you will not prevent the disastrous effects that our American Diet has on the body. And there are many other diseases besides coronary artery disease that a poor diet can cause. Diabetes and cancer and more....

It is never to late to change ones course. I have set my sails on a new heading. I am hoping this new heading will keep me away from the storms.
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Denise Pereyra said...

Wow, just Wow. By the way my dad is a resp therapist too. He has 9 stints and just had a quad bypass surgery.

Anonymous said...

Good read on what can and does happen. steveP

Ryan said...

No offense intended, but it is kinda funny that you're a resp therapist and you kept throwing it off as nothing more than pain.

Mike Kelsey said...

In my over 2 decades of being a healthcare provider, my experience is that healthcare workers are the worst when it comes to takeing care of their own healthcare needs. They will self diagnose, self prescribe, disagree with their physician and disregard personal health warning signals. I am sure some sociologists have expounded on this phenomenon.

I have also known many Respiratory Therapist that smoke!

Also I think there resides within men especially, this ego that will deny that there is anything wrong. Being a healthcare professional does not in any way give us any kind of advantage over our egos.

No offense taken... I too find my experience a bit odd and a little funny. Indeed the purpose of telling this personal tale was so that others may have a better understanding of the dynamics that can be in play when dealing with questions of our health.

# 1 Take care of yourself
# 2 If in doubt... Check it out when it comes to your health.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike, we're very glad that heart attack didn't take you down completely..but, we know you're too tough for that anyway! Thanks for sharing the story, it IS scary how we pass of things as if nothing is wrong even though the back of our mind tells us differently! jen b w

Anonymous said...


It's good to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to share your story and educate the rest of us through your experience. I am glad you are doing well.

Take Care,
Stan Johnson