Monday, May 9, 2016

Reflections After An Unexpected Heart Attack


I’ve had chest pain before. Three years ago, I visited the ER and underwent extensive testing that showed a strong heart. They gave me Xanax and Prilosec to see if one of those who help, and the Xanax worked. Chalked it up to stress. Since then, whenever I have had discomfort in my chest, Xanax and just a change of position cleared it up pretty quickly.

This time, the pain started the same way but quickly became something else. It was center mass; hard, demanding, unrelenting. I didn't feel like a vice was squeezing my chest or that an elephant was standing on me. It didn’t radiate. I just hurt, sweated profusely and turned very pale. Xanax and Tums did nothing. No position was comfortable. It took probably 30 minutes for my wife and I to decide it was time to take me in just to be sure. (No need to tell me we should have called an ambulance. We heard that one or thirty times while at the hospital).

Going in was a more confusing decision than it may seem. I am 47, and I am low on all the risk factors. (When I told my doc I didn’t have a family history, he said, “Now you do.” Clever guy.) Why would I be having a heart attack?  Six days prior, my son and I had done Crossfit’s 16.5, which was for me a 17 minute grinder of thrusters and burpees. Two days prior, I had tacked an extra session of clean and jerks onto a heavy kettlebell WOD. Thursday, the day of the attack, I had done heavy deadlifts and squats at the YMCA. I had some minor chest pain, but it went away when I sat down. It should have happened at any of those times, right? But it happened when I was playing Carcaconne with my family.  The whole drive to the hospital I fluctuated between, “No way!” and, “I wish Sheila would just blow that red light because this really hurts and might be serious.”

I found out after the surgery I had 100% blockage in left anterior descending (LAD) artery that runs down the front of the heart and supplies the front and main wall (that's a before and after picture to the right). That kind of heart attack is commonly called a Widowmaker, a little nugget of info I’m glad Sheila and I didn’t know that at the time. The doc told us later, “A lot of people don’t survive this one.” 

Why did it happen? Plaque dislodged and moved; that is the only thing that is clear. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly. Could I have done something to prevent it? Sure, in a general sense. I could have spent my whole life being healthier – but we could all do that, right? Nothing stood out. To quote my quotable doc again, sometimes it just happens. Occasionally the marathon runner keels over while the 85-year-old obese lifetime smoker does not. There are general principles that tend to ensure certain results - and then there are particular people who get different ones. I appear to be particular.

A lot of things worked in my favor. I was home and only ten minutes from the hospital, not flying to or boating in the Keys like my wife and I had been doing three weeks ago. My wife was present to observe what was happening and help me decide what to do. I got to the hospital relatively fast, probably within about forty-five minutes after the pain started. (Fun fact: the nurse asked Sheila if she wanted clergy present, and Sheila said, “He’s here already.”) From the time I got to ER until I had a stent was an hour and fifteen minutes. Because I got in so fast, blood flow started quickly enough that long-term damage to the heart muscle will likely be minimal. 

So now it’s a handful of pills every day, a very slow reentry into the ebb and flow of life, a suddenly serious study of how to fill my body with things that promote heart and artery health, and a lot of prayers of gratitude that God has allowed me more time with my wife, my boys, and my friends.  

Which brings me to the theological part of this experience.