Heart Month: A Tale of 14 Hours and 14 Aspirin

Heart Month: A Tale of 14 Hours and 14 Aspirin
Me with my daughter Erin before her college graduation, May 2009

Tomorrow I will celebrate my third birthday.

Yes, you read that right. T-h-i-r-d.  I didn't mean to type thirty (but it sure would be nice to return to those days of relative youth).  Nor is it a typo for forty third.  February 8th marks the third birthday I will celebrate since suffering a near-fatal heart attack on August 8, 2009.

It's a hard day to forget.

Each day I'm reminded of it when I swallow one aspirin, three prescription meds,  and four different supplements after I eat my bowl of oat cereal topped with fresh strawberries and blueberries chased down with a glass of pomegranate Kefir.  I can barely remember the days when the fruit I ingested for breakfast came in the form of loops and was spelled with double-o's.

I guess it's fitting that my birthday falls at the beginning of American Heart Month.  It's a gentle reminder to not only remember those who saved my life exactly two and a half years ago to the day*, but to also remember to share my story with others that might benefit from it.

So here's the really short version (a longer version appears here at Heart Of A Cyclist):

I woke up early that fateful morning in a hotel room near Oakland, California.  I had a strange ache in my left arm and some discomfort in my chest.  For a brief moment I thought "these seem like heart attack symptoms."

Then I remembered that I was only forty three.  I wasn't overweight, although I was getting close to that next BMI demarcation.  I was fit.  I didn't smoke.  I didn't drink (not even coffee).  I had never had high blood pressure or high cholesterol (still don't).  I thought I did a pretty good job of denying myself the usual artery cloggers - red meat, cheese, bacon, mayo, and fried foods.

I quickly dismissed my symptoms - two very key symptoms - as sleeping on my arm the wrong way and indigestion from a large meal the night before.

I popped four aspirin, two Tums, and went about preparing for my 2pm flight back to Chicago.  The intensity of the chest pressure ebbed and flowed as the aspirin surged and wore off.  About every four hours, I popped another four aspirin, took a couple more Tums, and continued on with my journey home.

Rental car.  Shuttle bus.  Airplane.  Shuttle bus.  Minivan.  Sometime after 9pm I arrived home and crawled into my bed to finally sleep this thing off.  If it was still bothering me in the morning, I would go to the urgent care.

My daughter, Erin, did not agree with my decision to sleep it off and insisted on taking me to the emergency room.  I reluctantly agreed, if only to dismiss this annoyance, pick up a prescription, and finally get some sleep.

Erin dropped me off at the entrance to the ER and I quietly walked up to the desk.  The moment I described my symptoms and offered my "it's probably just bad indigestion" diagnosis, I was quickly whisked into a side room to check my blood pressure.  Within a few short minutes I was lying on my back in a triage bay with no less than five technicians hovering about me.

I had never experienced anything more surreal than that moment when the ER doctor told me, almost nonchalantly, "you are having a heart attack."

Heart attack?  This couldn't be happening to me.  Fit 43 year-old cyclists don't have heart attacks!  A person can't just carry on a 14-hour day of traveling while suffering from a heart attack...

Even though I never uttered any of that aloud, the members of the triage team were more than quick to refute that flawed line of reasoning with an "oh yes you can and you bet your ass you are, buddy."

My new cardiologist was even more blunt.  "You should have gone to the emergency room in California."

It was at that moment that I learned some very hard truths about heart attacks.  Every minute that you delay seeking treatment, heart muscle dies, that's right dies from a lack of oxygen.  At any moment, the synapses that control the pumping of blood can short circuit causing cardiac arrest or sudden death.

Not only was I a walking time bomb on my sojourn home, I was causing permanent damage to heart muscle every step of the way.

After rebuking me, the cardiologist could only hope that I hadn't arrived too late for him to save my life.

The rest of the story will be posted in Part Two.

*Thanks to my daughter, Erin, my cardiologist, Dr. Arthur Nazarian, the ER doc, the ER triage team, the catheter lab crew, the ICU staff, and everyone in the cardiac care unit at St. Alexius Hospital in Hoffman Estates.  More thanks to my internist Dr. Robert Dick and the nursing staff at Alexian Brothers' cardiac rehabilitation program in Schaumburg.


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