I am writing this with the hope that what I went through will never happen to you.
For all of my life, I never had any surgeries or major illnesses. If I caught a cold, or felt an ache or pain, it would always go away. People would ask me, “Do you ever get sick?”. I felt invincible. I always had a fear of doctors and that fear was based on a doctor examining me and telling me something might be wrong. I just wouldn’t be able to bear that; and my health was so good that I was very careless in seeing doctors on a regular basis. That philosophy almost led to a life-crashing end for me. Or, perhaps, a stronger way of saying it … I almost died because of my stupidity.
Just two things to mention before I share my story: I don’t smoke or drink and never have.
About nine months ago, I noticed that I couldn’t walk as far as I used to without feeling a tightness on both sides of my upper back. I would simply need to sit for a short period and everything would return to normal. As the weeks went by, the time between episodes happened more quickly. At its worst, I could barely go five minutes without needing a break. I hid this from my family and friends. In fact, I made a point to stop carpooling so I wouldn’t have to walk with someone to a meeting from a parking garage, for example, because I didn’t want them to see me making so many stops. If I was walking with someone, I made a point to stop for strange reasons: “Isn’t that a nice tree?” or “Look at that car.”. Or I would just stop and stare at a store window.
Being a community activist required a lot of meetings, speeches or even performing a piano solo in a concert! I would always have this vision of me collapsing in front of all those people. But, somehow, everything worked out. I made it. I hoped that maybe “this thing” would cure itself.
But I could tell that it was getting worse. Sometimes just taking my things out to the car would leave me exhausted and I would have to wait before I could drive away. I finally knew something was terribly wrong and went to the doctor. My family physician discovered an “abnormality” on my EKG. Apparently, it was a small or silent heart attack that could have happened years ago, unbeknownst to me.
She recommended that I see a cardiologist. I still resisted and didn’t go for almost six weeks, hoping the blood pressure medicine I was given would solve the problem. It didn’t.
I was a nervous wreck when I went to see the cardiologist, Dr. Dean Heller. He took another EKG and, just from talking to me, could tell that there was probably some blockage in my arteries. He suggested a cardiac catheter test to determine if this was true and to find the severity of the blockage. Since I had never had a medical procedure done before, I thought I would pass out on hearing this. I pleaded with him to do an echo-cardiogram first to see what else he could see. The results only confirmed what he suspected. Again, he strongly suggested the cardiac catheter test and wanted to do it in two days!
One problem: That next day, I was scheduled to take a 31-hour, Amtrak train trip (by myself) to New York City to meet up with my family for Christmas break. By this time, I finally had to tell my family what was going on because there would have been no way to hide it as we walked around New York City. All the family was to fly up, except for me. I told the doctor that I didn’t want to ruin this trip for everyone and asked if we could schedule the test for when I came back. He wasn’t really happy about that, but I was very insistent. He just told me to be extremely careful.
I took the trip and it was so tough. Even though I took cabs everywhere, you still have to walk a lot. It continued to get worse. By some miracle, I made it through the six days and made it home. I was STILL convinced I could overcome this by just being in the comfort of my own home. Nope!!!
On January 6th,I checked into Baptist Hospital for the cardiac catheter test. Of course, I was very nervous, but so hopeful that one or two stents could solve this and I could go on living a normal life. After the test, I received the bad news.
I would need a triple by-pass. One artery was 100% blocked. The second one was 90% blocked and the third was 80% blocked. The next step was scheduling by-pass surgery. Even at that point, I tried to delay, suggesting that I would need second opinions, etc. Dr. Heller sent Dr. Lisardo Garcia (the heart surgeon) to speak with me. He told me that my problem is so obvious, that 100 heart surgeons would unanimously agree.
I realized that the time had come. Surgery was scheduled in a couple of days. I needed to face the reality and be strong. And that was my plan, just like I attacked everything else in life. I was at the end of the road, so there was no choice.
I was very calm the morning of the surgery. I was ready. There was no fear. I just wanted to get it done. Of course, things can go wrong in surgery and once I was put to sleep, for me, personally, if life ended, I would never have known it.
About seven hours later, I woke up. I was alive. Groggy and on morphine for pain. I remember hearing that “surgery went fine”. Now, just recover.
Twelve hours later, at 3:00 in the morning, while in a deep sleep, I went Code Blue. My EKG, which was moving normally, went NUTS! As those frantic Code Blue words were broadcast from the intensive care unit, the staff frantically rushed to save me. The nurse, who was watching my monitors, told me the next morning that he pounded furiously with CPR movements but to no avail. Which was why my back was so brutally sore. The CPR wasn’t working, so out came the paddles. Luckily, one shock got my heart back in rhythm. It was like a scene from a movie and the room looked like a hurricane had come through. I was alive, but something was clearly wrong.
The next morning, the doctors told me that the surgery had not gone perfectly, as thought, and that I would need to have more work done. They were hoping they could repair the by-pass with stents and, if not, another six-hour by-pass surgery was needed. I don’t think a human body can survive two of those surgeries in a 24-hour period.
I loosely use the word, “luckily”, that the surgeons were able to fix the problem with three stents. Finally, mission completed. Now the real recovery began.
As of this writing, it is 10 days since all of this happened. I came home three days ago. All facts considered, I am doing well. The pain is slight, but there. Sleeping is not easy at this point.
There is always the thought of this repair job inside my chest, and will it really hold together. A very high percentage of people go into depression after having this done.
I decided that I would share my story with friends, family and the American Heart Association with the hope that you’ll RUN to the doctor, and not away, when you have ANY concern related to your heart, or really any health issues. If I had done this sooner, a few stents would have fixed the problem. I did all of this to myself and of course to my family who had to wait through so many procedures and hours to see if I would survive. Each time a doctor or nurse walked out to the waiting room for updates, my family intensely gazed at the faces of those delivering the messages…. praying for the best.
As I mentioned, I don’t smoke or drink. So, how did this happen? Partly genetics, but mainly because of a terrible, horrible, pitiful, willingness to eat anything. Because of a belief that the fast foods, high fats, high calorie drinks wouldn’t bring me down. I never looked at a food label in my life.
Ongoing, I am recovering from heart disease … there, I said it … and, somehow, I need to find the strength to resist those foods that brought me to this condition. I don’t know how successful I will be with this new life … Part Two … another chance.
But, I am going to try.
Feel free to call me at 305-439-3571. If I can help you, please, just call.
As an update to this story, it is now eight months later and thankfully I am still here, feeling wonderful.! I am eating better, but will admit, I am far from perfect. The biggest change in my life is going to the Cardiac Rehab Gym at Baptist Hospital. I had never gone to a gym before this heart episode, and now never miss this new and important part of my life. In fact, I work out like a demon/maniac, pushing myself to reach new goals every month. This gym is full of amazing people that all have their own “heart stories”, and are all fighting to build back their second chance as well.
I hope to never see you in this “gym of life”, so I’ll say it one more time…..See Your Doctor! Don’t delay!!!!!