On Having a Heart Attack

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Life can change in the blink of an eye.

Or the beat of a struggling heart.

A week ago at this time, I was being wheeled from the emergency room into the heart catherization lab at Banner Heart Hospital in the middle of what a cardiologist described as a “massive heart attack.”

Believe me, it sucked.

Yes, it was excruciatingly painful. You know how a doctor will ask you, “On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your pain level”? I’ve had broken bones, debilitating migraines and a couple of surgeries. I always labeled those a “10″. The heart attack was more like a 27. The pain is intensified by an overwhelming dread running through your heart (literally and figuratively) and soul that you are about to die.

But that pain is temporary.

It’s the look on your wife and children’s faces that really hurts.

That is a look I will never, ever, forget.

I am blessed beyond words to have an amazing family, and a lot of wonderful and caring friends. I asked Francy to post a status update on my Facebook page as I was going into the cath lab to let my friends know and to ask for support and prayers.

The response was overwhelming. We cannot begin to express our thanks to everyone that reached out. It really did make a difference.

Many people have asked for “the story”, so here it is. Fair warning, I’m going to get a little preachy on you at the end. Deal with it, there may be some things said that could save your or a friend’s life.

“That Day”

I flew in to Phoenix from Seattle late Friday night. About 12:30am Saturday morning, I went to Jack in the Box (ironic, isn’t it?) and grabbed a typical meal — two tacos and a Jumbo Jack with cheese — which I snarfed down with a soda and went to bed about 2am.

Here was the last Tweet I sent before my heart attack:

Six hours later (note to self, you need to get more sleep) I woke up and felt fine. I plopped down in front of the computer like I do on any other morning and started looking at email, going through my feed reader and checking social media sites. Oh, what a thrilling life we lead.

Ten minutes or so into that, I felt a sharp stabbing pain right in the middle of my chest. Kind of cramp-like. Like a “stitch” you get in your side sometimes but this was right in the middle of my chest. “What the f**k?” I thought to myself. And then it was gone.

A couple of minutes later it happened again. And again.

Francy was out running errands and I called her to tell her I was having weird chest pains. She was on her way home and said I should wake up our daughter. We both thought it was most likely indigestion from the damn JITB tacos.

But this felt different.

Just moments later, it felt like Chuck Norris kicked me in the chest. I couldn’t take a deep breath. I couldn’t get up off the couch to get my daughter up. And then I started pouring sweat from every pore in my body.

I knew something was horribly wrong.

I called Francy back to tell her I was going to call 911 and she said to call them before I could get the words out.

I couldn’t even dial the phone right, so my daughter called them for me.

“911 what is your emergency?”

“I’m having really bad chest pains.”

“I’ve already got paramedics on the way…”

The 911 operator asked me a lot of questions. They were very calm and professional — which is good because at this point I’m pretty convinced that I’m dying, right in front of my baby girl. Francy arrived home moments before the firetruck got there. It felt like it took an eternity for them to arrive, but looking back and piecing together the timeline, they got there less than five minutes after we dialed 911.

From that point on, things were a blur. The pain was getting worse and worse. I remember the firemen / paramedics giving me oxygen, starting an EKG, putting nitro under my tongue, and putting in an IV. I remember getting annoyed because they couldn’t hear my answers because of the oxygen mask. I remember asking them if my wife and daughter were OK.

I remember thinking that I wasn’t going to make it to the hospital. The sense of impending doom was overwhelming.

Francy tells me the ambulance arrived and one of the firemen handed the driver the EKG strip and they glanced at it and ran outside to get the stretcher. She said when she saw that, she knew it was bad.

As I was wheeled past my wife and daughter, I told them I was going to be fine and not to worry. But to be perfectly honest, I thought to myself that I might not ever see them again.

The firemen loaded me in the ambulance and since Francy and Lauren weren’t there I asked them point blank, “Am I having a heart attack?” They aren’t doctors, and can only say, “We don’t know, but you have all the symptoms so we’re treating it like that.”

We only live about three miles from Banner Heart Hospital, but it felt like it took an eternity to get there. The firemen/paramedics were awesome though. At one point I apologized for repeatedly dropping the F-bomb when a wave of chest pain was particularly bad and one of the firemen responded, “Don’t fucking worry about it”. For whatever reason, that struck us both as funny. So did this exchange:

“We need to give you more nitro. Before we do, it’s important to know if you take Viagra or Cialis or anything for erectile dysfunction. It can interact with the nitro.”

“I may be dying, but I don’t need that stuff.”

“I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Once we got to the emergency room, things moved very quickly. There must have been 10 medical personnel in the room. I don’t remember much — lots of questions, at some point my wife and kids showed up. They were remarkably brave, but I suspect their fears were similar to mine. I distinctly recall some doctor looking me in the eye and saying, “You’re having a heart attack. We’re going to take you to the cath lab.” I kissed my wife and kids goodbye and was rushed into the cath lab. There I met my cardiologist for the first time, M. Joshua Berkowitz, M.D. He was very calm, very reassuring, but believe me, when he injected some dye to see if there were blockages in my coronary arteries and he looked me in the eye and said, “You are having a massive heart attack. You have one artery that is 100% blocked and another that is 95% blocked,” that will scare the shit out of you no matter how calm and confident the doctor is. Your fears aren’t relieved any by having the doc tell you that if you’d had the heart attack eight hours earlier on the plane, or waited another 20 minutes to call 911 you would be dead.

But that’s exactly the message I needed to hear because unless I make some significant lifestyle changes, the odds of me having a subsequent heart attack are high.

Dr. Berkowitz cleared the completely blocked artery via angioplasty and put in a stent, and opted to wait a couple of days to clear the one that was 95% blocked to allow the heart to recuperate some and for the kidneys to work on eliminating the dyes used in the procedure.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next four days in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the “Telemetry floor” (where your heart is monitored 24 x 7) other than to say the care I received at Banner Heart Hospital was world class. The nurses, staff and doctors were without fail caring, compassionate and professional.

During those four days, the support from my friends all across the country — those I’ve met personally and those I’ve only ever “met” on-line — was overwhelming. Believe me, it makes a big difference to know that people out there care about you. I wish I could personally thank each and every one of you. You were, and will continue to be, a big part of my recovery.

A Wake Up Call

I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, and I certainly don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, but I think it’s important to say this…

I am lucky to be alive. Through the miracle of modern medicine I went from having chest pains and calling 911 to lying in the cardiac cath lab in under 90 minutes. Thank God for the Mesa Fire Department, the paramedics, nurses, hospital staff and doctors that literally saved my life.

That’s all well and good, but truth be told I brought a lot of this upon myself, and my family and friends.

I’m just 51 years old, but I don’t eat well, I don’t exercise, I’m overweight, my blood pressure is too high and my cholesterol levels are even higher. Back in my younger days I smoked like a chimney, quit smoking years ago then started back up as what I called a “casual smoker” or a “social smoker”. I claimed, “I’m not really a smoker. I smoke less than a pack a week. I go days without cigarettes.” Yeah, well that’s a load of bullshit. It’s like being a little bit pregnant. Or saying, “This double cheeseburger isn’t bad for me because it doesn’t have bacon on it.” (oh how I already miss bacon)

There is nothing I can do about the fact that my Grandfather died at the age of 42 from a heart attack, or that my father has an defibrillator implanted in his chest. But I damn sure can do something about every other risk factor.

And you can rest assured I will. It is past time to change my dietary habits, lose weight, exercise, get my blood pressure and cholesterol level under control and not smoke one cigarette or cigar again. Ever.

I don’t ever, EVER, want to have another heart attack. Selfishly, it is excruciatingly painful and staring death in the face really jacks with your head. Far more importantly than that though, it puts your friends and family through hell. I don’t ever want to do this to my kids, my wife, my family and my friends again. I’m going to do everything I can to no longer be a “walking heart attack waiting to happen” because sooner or later it will happen.

I also don’t want to be “that guy” and tell you how to live your life. That’s not my place. Who am I to tell you how to live? But I can share my experiences with you, share my successes and failures as I make some pretty radical lifestyle adjustments. Share what I learn along the way. I can encourage you to eat better, to loose weight, to stop smoking. You won’t hear me say things like, “Those cigarettes are going to kill you!” and “My God you’re clogging up your arteries with all that fat and sodium you eat!”  But you will hear me share what I can and do what I can to help my family and friends be healthier.

Trust me, you don’t want to have a heart attack. It BLOWS.

Learn these heart attack symptoms.  Remember, you may not experience every symptom. I had zero pain radiating into my arms, shoulder or jaw. DON’T SCREW AROUND if you have any of  these symptoms. If I’d waited just 20 more minutes to call 911, I’d be dead. If I’d waited 5 more minutes, I’d have more permanent heart damage. My cardiologist told me people die (usually men) every day because they wait too long to call 911. You can’t “tough out” a heart attack. You can’t will it away. Heck, I came *this* close to having my wife drive me to the ER. If we’d done that, we’d have missed out on all the medications the first responders can give you, missed out on the hospital having the EKG in their hands when I arrived. Missed out on crucial care in the first minutes of the heart attack. If you call 911 and it turns out you had indigestion or a panic attack, so what? At least you will be ALIVE.

And if you are like me — eating poorly, overweight, not exercising, pushing the blood pressure, have a lousy lipid profile (high cholesterol and triglycerides), or if you smoke at all, then please for the love of all things holy do something about it. If not for you, do it for your family and friends. You don’t have to go all vegan ultra-marathoner. Just start living healthier.

Sure, it may suck. Let’s face it, there is an awful lot to like about snarfing down two tacos and a Jumbo Jack at 2:00am and chasing it down with a cold sugary Coke or a frosty beer.

But there is a hell of a lot more to life than that. And I will gladly give up all the double-doubles on the planet for one more hug from my wife and kids. One more phone call or text or visit or email from a friend. One more day ALIVE and sharing all life really has to offer with friends and family…

 

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About the Author
Jay Thompson

I'm a real estate broker in Phoenix, Arizona and the publisher of the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog. I tend to drive too fast and scream at the University of Texas and Denver Broncos football teams. My two kids are smarter than most adults I know and my wife is simply amazing.

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