There are moments when the conceits and distractions of our lives are ripped away. In those moments we confront the realities of our own existence.
Such a moment occurred for me on January 22nd, 2019.
On that day, I had a heart attack.
Even now, many weeks later, there is a surreal quality to making that statement. But it is no dream; nor, actually a nightmare either. It is something that happened and it has now changed my life in terms of how I will live my life. Beyond that, it marked the start of a time for truly understanding what is important to me.
At this point there are still more questions than answers for how I will live my life. A damaged heart can take up to six months to heal or not.
This event began with me finishing up a TRX class the local YMCA. The class had been typically hard, but I was doing fine and felt okay. The last exercise was a plank with our feet in the straps and our upper bodies in a pushup position. We were to lower ourselves to our elbows and push our way back up.
As I did the first one, I felt something as if something had happened and I was incredibly tired. I stopped the exercise and decided to stretch but I felt more fatigued than I had ever been. I made my way to the side of the room and first sat down and then laid down. My friends came by to check on me as the instructor summoned the YMCA EMTs.
I was having no chest pain; nor did I have pain radiating down my arm or pain in the jaw. As an aside, the doctors told me later the better physical condition one is in, the less obvious are the symptoms of a heart attack.
A call was made to 9-1-1 and the fire department came and they took readings while preparing me for transport. The decision was made to take me to Tacoma General, which has a coronary unit.
Along the way, I had a moment of clarity. I promised myself two things. One, that I would not ever ask “why me” or second guess choices made in the past. My only focus would be on this point on. I will say, not without some struggle, I have stayed true to those promises.
At the hospital, I was in the ER with a nurse and paramedic trainee, when I heard “Code Stennie”. Soon my room was filled with people. The cardiologist told me my Anterior Left Descending (ALD) coronary artery was 100% blocked and I needed a stent.
The ALD is sometimes called the widow maker. I apparently have an extra coronary artery (more of a branching issue actually) and that may have been enough to keep me alive.
I was quickly taken up to the seventh floor and the stent put in.
Four more days were spent in intensive care where I took daily walks and got to know the nurses taking care of me.
Sent home, I assumed I would begin my healing.
Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case. Within days, I was coughing, growing weaker, and unable to lay down without the coughing growing worse.
Messages to the cardiologist who treated me in the hospital led to appointments and some medication but no real relief. It should go without saying this cardiologist was dropped soon after (her behavior confirmed what the intensive-care nurses told me).
On February 7th, I had an extensive coughing session and then had a difficult time regaining control of my breath. I called 9-1-1 and was back in the ER. The ER doctor said I had fluid in my pericardium (the sack surrounding the heart).
It was then back to the same room where the stent was put in and a different cardiologist drained 1.7 liters of fluid (57 ounces). The fluid was suspected of having seeped in during the initial attack – something the cardiologist would have found in my initial hospitalization if she had ordered an additional echocardiogram or x ray.
I then spent six more days in the hospital where I was put on diuretics to reduce the fluid buildup in my tissues.
Since then, I have been to the Emergency Room twice. The first time I passed out in my cardiologist’s office. The consensus of the docs after many hours was that it was vasovagal syncope – passing out due to strong emotion.
The second time was due to checking out some labored breathing and coughing. Turned out I had bilateral pleural effusion; basically, fluid had leaked into the space between the lungs and pleural sac. More diuretics were administered and that eased the symptoms at least temporarily.
The next stage of healing is now twofold. First, I will work with the Heart Failure Lab. They will make changes to medication as needed to promote healing. The second is working with the Cardiac Rehab Unit where I will work out under the supervision of clinical exercise specialists who will monitor my heart during workouts.
The goal of both of these efforts is to give the heart the most chances for healing. I have to believe the efforts will be successful.
But I’m also aware this was a major heart attack and some tissue may not come back. There are some surgical options involving implants that arise if healing is not successful. To be honest, I’m a bit frightened when thinking about those.
This is what it is. I’m trying to make the best of it.
I’ll offer only one piece of advice. Take your 81mg baby aspirin every day.