14 Hours and 14 Aspirin Part Five (continued from part four)
While the official campaign for American Heart Month may be drawing to an end, my personal campaign has but one expiration date – my own.
I can’t look at the calendar and conveniently say “Thank God I won’t have to deal with this unpleasant heart business for another eleven months.” I am reminded of heart disease twice daily. Popping pills may become as routine as teeth brushing to some, but this unnatural act only serves as a continual warning to me. I must remain ever vigilant in my fight against atherosclerosis.
Each morning I’m reminded of that fateful day in August of 2009 when I suffered a near-fatal heart attack while traveling home from a business trip. I remember the anguished faces of my loved ones gathered around me in the ICU, the surprised looks from the medical professionals who attended to me, and the stunned expressions from everyone I shared my story with. I'm not allowed to forget how that one incident changed the course of my life.
Five weeks after my heart attack I returned to the hospital for a second angioplasty and the installation of my third (and final) stent. At that early stage only one thing was known about the damage done to my heart; my ejection fraction - the rate at which my heart pumps blood - was at 42%. An average person should be 50% or higher. Athletes can rise into the 60's.
Bicycling probably saved my life. Nine years of recreational cycling and regular exercise likely had my EF well above 50%. As I entered the 12-week cardiac rehabilitation program at Alexian Brothers Medical Center I had but one goal; return to my former level of fitness (and not die trying).
I hit the program full force, pushing myself as hard as I could go during the duration of exercise I was approved for. Each successive week I was allowed to add a minute or two to each of three consecutive exercises. Since I was being monitored remotely by the rehab staff, I was free to run on the treadmill, sprint on the Airdyne, and up the resistance on the stair stepper. If my heart wasn't healing correctly, my exercise results would have shown it.
Rehab meant more than just monitored exercise three days per week. The program tracked my eating habits and surveyed my mental well-being. Depression is a normal side effect during the recovery process and I battled that, as well.
I truly believe that recovery is not an event or even a measurable time period. Recovery is a lifestyle.
Living with heart disease is a constant balancing act. We know that we must exercise regularly, eat better, and avoid stress. Unlike anyone who has yet to suffer a heart attack or stroke or be diagnosed with diabetes, heart attack survivors no longer live in denial that a chronic disease may statistically be in our future - it has already arrived.
We've seen the enemy and it is us.
We know that we have the ability to remain vigilant against the disease, to treat it with medication, and keep it at bay with lifestyle changes. We just don't always have the will. It's tough to make lifestyle changes half-way through life.
I find the motivation to maintain my exercise schedule, stay true to my diet, and release stress partly through my love of bicycling. Riding my bike is a great way to relax my mind while keeping my heart strong. Eating well makes it easier for me to perform on the bike and a higher level of fitness makes riding more enjoyable. Bicycling is part of my recovery lifestyle.
The other part of my recovery lifestyle is a quest to find the answer to the one remaining question - why did I survive?
I am certainly one of a fortunate few who survived, but thanks to ever-improving technology, expert doctors, and pro-active trauma centers, those who seek prompt attention also have an excellent chance of survival. Retelling my story has already saved one life that I know of - my brother's - and is likely to save more than I'll ever hear about.
Yes, it can happen to anyone - fit or not-fit-at-all, young or old, male or female. Heart disease is the number one killer in America. Its cause is the same as the other chronic diseases - stroke, diabetes, and obesity - now referred to as metabolic syndrome.
Eat right. Exercise. Reduce stress. Know the warning signs. Get a lipid profile to see if you're at risk. Think of the people who would be most impacted should you die prematurely. Don't let any of these chronic diseases shorten your life.
As for me, I'm going to keep riding my bike. After rehab I was able to return to an ejection fraction of 50% with a lipid profile that would qualify me for preferred plus life insurance status (you know, if I didn't have that one big X next to the heart attack question).
Now, if only this snow would melt...
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