When I woke up in the intensive care unit, it didn't take long for me to realize that the path of my life had been forever altered. I had several questions that I really needed answers for. How bad is this? How long will I be in here? How did this happen? Why did this happen?
As much as I needed answers to each of these questions, my mind was fixated on but one seemingly unanswerable question; “did this really happen to me?”
Fixate may even be the wrong word to describe the situation. It wasn't really an obsession, it was more like a continual playback loop where the question repeated itself so quickly that my mind never had the chance to formulate an answer. I was caught in a perpetual state of disbelief.
Before I could move forward with my recovery, I had to slowly overcome the shock that I had suffered a heart attack. I wasn't really a hospital patient, bedridden and tethered to monitors, I was the guy explaining the plot of a movie I had just seen.
I repeated my story to every person who stepped into my room. From nurses to technicians to doctors to visitors, each time I retold my tale I would remember another tiny detail and offer it up as some big revelation. I became so adept with my narration that I had learned to insert dramatic pauses and even punchlines. Within a few days the shock wore off and I came to accept the fact that this was actually my own adventure and I was, in fact, very lucky to have survived.
It was time to move on to the harder questions.
As mentioned in part three, how I suffered the heart attack was pretty easy to understand. While the extent of the actual damage had yet to be determined, I did know that I would be discharged in about three days if all went well.
That left just one more question - why did this happen to me?
There was a lot of introspection on the road to discovering the answer to “why”. Was I doomed by my family history? Was it my diet? Did I bring this on with stress? Was this just an unfortunate condition that could neither be foreseen nor prevented?
I found the family history explanation a little too convenient. I was the fourth of five children and probably the most fit. Three of my siblings had been smokers. My oldest brother - thirteen years my senior - was overweight, had battled with high blood pressure, and suffered from a genetic blood disorder (also courtesy of our mother). Six weeks earlier, he and I had remarked about just how lucky we were for winning the genetic lottery. He suffered his first heart attack five months after I experienced mine.
Deep down I knew that my diet had to be a major contributor. While I tried to stay away from red meat, cheese, and fried foods and eat more turkey, chicken, and wheat, my life on the road often meant sacrificing quality for convenience. Upon my discharge, I vowed to eat better.
While I waited for five weeks to undergo a second angioplasty for insertion of the third stent in my still-blocked circumflex artery, the most exercise I could manage was a slow walk around the block. I focused on my diet, cutting out pop and both sugary and salty snacks. I cut back my portion sizes. To my amazement, I was shedding an average of three pounds per week without exercise! Three months of intensive physical therapy would only shave another five pounds, so it was obvious that changing my diet was key in transforming my health.
After a friend gave me a copy of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, it didn't take me long to determine what I had been doing wrong. The book reminded me why I needed to eat more fruit and vegetables and stick with lean proteins and whole grains. It explained to me the hidden dangers of processed foods and the insidious nature of high fructose corn syrup.
When people ask me why I had a heart attack at 43, I have a simple answer for them. I blame it on two women; my mother and Little Debbie.
My heart disease wasn't caused by too much cholesterol and saturated fats - it was caused by too much sugar. Switching to a diet of whole foods in conjunction with my normal exercise routine resulted in an eventual weight loss of 35 pounds which I've managed to keep off for nearly two years now.
I discovered my X factor. I attacked it with a vow to never put myself or my family through that type of ordeal again. And it's really not that hard to commit to a healthy lifestyle when you consider the alternative.
I'll share my recovery story in part five.
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