Recently some major events in my life have forced certain things into clearer focus. In today’s world it seems like everything is about what we have done in the last 5 minutes and the past is quickly swept aside. We forget that what came before lays the ground work for what is coming next. In sports this often means that the team or individual that prepares the best can overcome against others with more talent. The opposite is also true, poor preparation leads to a poor outcome and like almost everything in athletics it is analogous with life in general.
I spent the vast majority of my life living a VERY unhealthy lifestyle. As a child I was always the slightly chubby kid and as I entered high school only football and weight lifting for football kept me from being morbidly obese. Even when I was exercising hard I threw every kind of junk in my body, eating thousands of calories daily and taking any fad substance from drinks to amino acids to you name it that promised to make me bigger or stronger. The combination of knee injuries, the sudden stop of exercise and the continuation of the calories at the end of school propelled me on a downward spiral early in my adult life. I went from a 36 inch waist as a senior to an eventual 56 inch waist. Soon I found myself on a deadly roller coaster of weight gain and loss where each time I lost 25 or 30 pounds I would soon gain 40 or 50.
In my professional life I became known as a cardiac expert, a true oxymoron for someone who at times teetered at 400 pounds. How could I get up and teach people how to find and treat heart disease while I was the walking example of an acute MI waiting to happen? My cousin Jeff died young and still I continued, I started to respond to people my age and younger dying of heart disease and no change. Finally I woke up and as I have written here started trying but was it in time? Had I waited to long to make the radical changes?
A couple weeks ago I started to experience some palpitations and a burning sensation in my shoulders, neck and chest. As a paramedic and educator I was well aware that these are classic warning signs of heart disease. I was also well aware of the many other things that this could be and was able to make convincing arguments with myself how come it was impossible for me to have a heart attack. Still, the frequency and severity of the problem was increasing. I discussed it with a limited number of people, Ladonna of course, a few other friends and coworkers, always downplaying it while admitting that it was happening. It was starting to get to the point where when it occurred it would cause some shortness of breath and a flushed feeling. There was no rhyme or reason to it in regards to exercise or activity and I was running out of excuses.
Finally I reached a point where I had to admit that I needed to get checked. My future demanded it. Since we were children we have been told that you are what you eat and for the vast majority of my life that was a deadly cocktail of fats, sugars and substances that are 50 letters long. Even with the fitness and dietary changes made 3 1/2 years ago I could just imagine the thick layers of plaque and lipids built up in my heart vessels, narrowing the passages and choking off the muscles. The day had arrived when I was about to find out…
The Rolling Ball
I was scheduled to be at a STEMI (S-T Elevation Myocardial Infarction, the deadliest type of heart attack) protocol committee meeting on Wednesday the 24th at the Southwest EMS Council in Bristol at 1 PM. Several of the top cardiac practitioners in the area would be there and I had promised Ladonna I would mention my problem to them if I could and see about getting in to be checked. You have to understand that for a proud person like me admitting that I need help is a big step and one that I was still trying to figure a way out of. Lucky me, when I got there it had been cancelled, maybe a slight reprieve?
My reprieve was slight indeed. The missed meeting lead to a phone call and an impromptu stop at Holston Valley in the STEMI Coordinator’s office. While talking to Leslie about the regional protocols and having her check to see what doctor might squeeze me in to check my little problem my heart started it’s tap dance routine. It is one thing to tell yourself it is nothing but another to explain it to someone else equally as knowledgeable. The irregular heart rate was soon joined by shortness of breath, clammy skin and a burning pressure that set the ball rolling.
Finally admitting that you think there is something wrong and that you need help has a strangely liberating and humbling effect that is hard to describe. Leslie was great, taking me under her wing and going beyond anything I could have expected. She stayed with me, bet me about lab values and EKG results (she lost) and did the one thing I couldn’t; explained what was going on to Ladonna. While the lab values and EKG’s confirmed that I was not having a heart attack that did not mean that I was out of the woods by any means. Because of my running over the past couple of years I might have increased something called collateral blood flow, where my heart was able to reroute blood to areas that needed it, almost like a self made bypass. The arteries that supplied the blood to my heart could still be partially occluded or blocked which would cause the intermittent problems. Doctor Hudson seemed to confirm that thought when he casually asked “Do you want a cath?” What? My head was spinning… this just got real! NO! I want to go home! I want to wake up! Does anyone ever want a cath? Next was the P.A. from cardiology, then Doctor Turner, then it was time.
Sometimes knowledge is a good thing and others it is not, this was the mixed bag I faced as I was getting ready for my cardiac catheterization. I was fairly certain that based on the test results there was no active damage being done but I was equally certain that the sins of my past had just caught up with me. As I was being taken down the hall to the Cath Lab I was filled with visions of the future I wanted. Suddenly things like work were taking a back seat in my mind and Ladonna and the kids and friends were all I could think of. I was supposed to be the strong one, the one that was taking care of them, not the one being wheeled away.
The fact that I was having these problems was something I wanted to keep under wraps until afterwards. I did not want to worry anyone about things without cause and I knew that some would. Ladonna knew and had Daniel with her, Joie was there also so Ladonna would not be alone. I did tell work and a couple of the guys stumbled on me before I went up. Specifically I wanted to wait and tell dad in person after I knew what the verdict was. I had left my work phone in the car and turned my other one off so I had no way to know that several people were calling and sending text, praying for me.
I tell my patients all the time that our area has cardiac care second to none. I can now say, having been on the other side, that this true. The doctor and nurses in the cath lab were very good to me, they explained everything that was being done and made sure that I understood. Dr. Chang even did an extra “pass” to make certain that he had not missed anything. I thought I had prepared myself for any and all possible results but I was not ready for what he had to say. I was somewhat fuzzy from the medication but that is probably not the reason I asked him to repeat himself. Clear! Did he mean that it was only 40 or 50 % occluded? No, clear meant clear, no blockages, no sludge left over from the years of abuse, clear. An answer to prayers, a gift of a future, a renewed life, clear!
Next was recovery where the staff was once again very nice, very professional, very good to me. Doctor Turner stopped by and discussed the results with me, a G. I. (stomach) issue, probably GERD or maybe a hernia or even gallbladder was most likely to blame, the irregular heart rhythm? Not a worry, not dangerous, tobacco, caffeine, stress. A follow up in a couple of weeks, some things to try, time to stop smokeless tobacco, refocus. I can not explain the utter joy I felt, even if I was having to lay still, not move and had a large hole in my femoral artery. My only thought was wanting to hold Ladonna, to see her and the kids and Joie and share this great news with them!
From recovery we went onto a room where everyone was. I think (still under a fentanyl and versed fog) that I maintained a good strong front, no crying at least despite the joy. I do remember at some point quoting Frost and Lincoln from high school and thinking that was a perfectly normal thing to do. The funniest thing was discovering that I was either a doctor or a V.I.P. from Wellmont or Mountain States since I was in a “meeting” with the hospital President ( I’m not sure if Leslie is aware of her promotion) when my episode struck. To their credit my care was excellent, even after they found out who I really was and who I was with. It was just very good to be with Daniel, Ladonna and Joie, to be safe.
Having a cardiac cath, even if they don’t find anything, has a lasting effect on one. The girls had conspired to leave me without my car for the next couple of days, not that they had anything to worry about. Having a large hole in my groin region that has the potential to spurt arterial blood tends to make me take it a little easy as does the hang over from the medications. Maybe it’s a good thing because it gave me time to think about things. I am blessed. Ladonna, my awesome friends, they surrounded me with love and support and prayer. Leslie, Doctors Turner, Hudson and Chang, the staff of each department, they all treated me as if I was one of their own and I know they are the best at what they do.
I debated telling this story on here but in the end realized that it is one of the most important things I have to share. By the grace of God prayers were answered and nothing was found despite all the years of abuse but it could have just as easily been the exact opposite. Perhaps the take away from this is it’s never to late to change your life. I waited until I was in my 40’s to finally wake up but if there is anyone out there, young, old, somewhere in between, who is reading this and wants to or needs to start this journey your time is now. The first step is to acknowledge to yourself that it’s time, the second is to act on it. Trust me, I know it is intimidating and for me not something I could have done alone. If you have started and failed try again, we have all been there. Ask friends and family, your doctor, your coworkers because they will help. Join a fitness group, a gym, go by Fleet Feet if you are in the Tri-Cities or your local running or biking store and ask them for direction or help. You don’t have to run a marathon or a 5 K or run at all, find what type of fitness interest you and START. I know at the YMCA in Kingsport Tyler will point you to a group that will fit almost any interest or need.
Today will be the hardest day since the procedure. If you are reading this then dad did not kill me when I told him about this. I hope that he will understand that I knew he would want to be there, it would have been over before he made it, that I was in good hands and he would have been told if there had been anything what so ever out of the ordinary. After that will be Mary, at least she lives far enough away that I have to call her so she can’t kill me before I post, or maybe I will tell her after?
Today is day 4 of the rest of my life!