Three years ago today, I was lying on a gurney in the emergency room fighting for my life.
To be more accurate, the ER and catheter teams were fighting against the clock to save my life. I remained motionless in shock and disbelief.
There was really nothing that I could do to help myself. By that point, I had already squandered fourteen hours of prime treatment time by not seeking immediate medical attention at the onset of what would later be revealed as classic heart attack symptoms. The attending cardiologist was visibly angry with me for my procrastination. Little did I know how critical every minute could be while experiencing a myocardial infarction.
Heart muscle begins to die – yes die – as soon as its supply of oxygen is cut off by a blocked coronary artery. The more muscle that dies, the harder it is for the heart to pump blood. Meanwhile, should an electrical pathway become short-circuited by dead heart muscle, cardiac arrest and instant death can occur.
It was a good thing that I possessed the heart of a cyclist.
Nine years of bicycling had strengthened my heart muscle. My resting heart rate was low. My recovery time after a hard effort was short. I could sustain a high heart rate for long periods of time while I logged mile after mile on my bike. My heart was strong and efficient.
But it wasn’t immune to bad genetics and a poor diet.
When I arrived at the emergency room, my coronary arteries were blocked in three places. I had both a 90% and 100% blockage in the LMCA – the “widow maker” artery – and a 90% blockage in the circumflex artery. It took three angioplasties during two separate procedures to clear the blocked arteries and three stents to keep them reopened.
Remarkably, heart muscle damage was minimal leaving only a small amount of scarred tissue. My compromised ejection fraction returned to the average rate of 50% after my recovery.
While I was extremely lucky that the dead muscle did not trigger cardiac arrest prior to seeking treatment (or in the full year afterward during my recovery), every medical practitioner who has heard my story attributed my cycling heart to my unlikely survival.
But I also blame it for instilling a false sense of confidence in me.
For years I labored under the delusion that bad calories wouldn’t hurt me because I could burn them off at will while riding my bike. This simply isn’t the case.
On long rides like RAGBRAI and other 40-mile plus endeavors, ingesting carbohydrates is necessary to “top off” the tank and keep glucose levels high for fast energy delivery.
Off the bike, a diet high in carbs – especially junk carbs like flavored beverages, sugar-sweetened snacks, anything with white flour, and prepackaged low sodium / low fat meals – only serves to elevate triglycerides and contribute to arterial inflammation and plaque build-up.
You just can’t eat the same way off the bike as you do on the bike or during post-ride recovery. That was a valuable lesson I should not have had to learn the hard way.
One of the reasons that I am such a strong proponent of bicycling is that it delivers on two of the three recommendations for preventing, treating, and reversing heart disease - physical exercise and stress reduction. The third – proper diet – can be achieved indirectly via the sensation substitution factor.
Foods high in sugar, salt, and fat trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains. Comfort and junk foods can mimic the euphoric effects of illicit substances like cocaine. Similarly, endorphins released during medium to high intensity physical exertion are suspected to have the same effect. One can retrain the brain to prefer the high of bicycling in place of the joy of eating comfort food.
Not a day has passed in these last three years when I haven't been reminded of how lucky I was to have survived. Not a day has passed that I haven't thought about bicycling, either.
Bicycling is my lifeblood. It keeps me physically fit. It keeps my mind clear. It helps me escape the daily grind and relive my carefree days of youth. It gives me something to look forward to.
Bicycling balances my life. It's that combination of overcoming inertia, achieving equilibrium, and maintaining momentum that serves as the perfect metaphor for what happiness in life is all about.
Yes, there are times when the start is wobbly or something obstructs your path and you're forced to put a foot down or topple over. There are steep hills and strong headwinds thwarting your progress. But there are also flats, downhills, and tailwinds that let you coast for awhile. As long as you keep moving forward, you'll get where you're going.
Bicycling - the physical act and the mental state of being - really did save my life.
Bicycling, my daughter, Erin, the crack ER and catheter staff at St. Alexius Medial Center, and Dr. Arthur Nazarian, together - saved my life.
Keep riding and be safe. And seek immediate attention if you experience any heart attack symptoms. My results, as they say, were not typical...
If you found this post helpful, share it on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter by clicking the boxes below the article title.