You Have a Heart Attack in Progress

When something occurs that is irregular, it is worth a trip to the emergency room. It can save your life, and it probably saved mine.

“You have a heart attack in progress.” This was the announcement that greeted me immediately after an EKG test at the emergency room of Virtua Hospital in Voorhees.  Stunned, puzzled, disbelieving, I said “It must be a mistake.” Just a few hours earlier, on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, I sweated in the gym, lifting weights, running track, and an assortment of exertions I regularly do in the gym.

There were no indications of an oncoming heart attack. The usual warning signs of a heart attack: pressure or pain in the arm, was absent; there was no heart pain, difficulty breathing, or any of the usual indicators of a heart problem. There was however a slight discomfort around the collar bone on the left side of the chest, which I attributed to a “hiatal hernia,” irritated by eating acidic substances.

Upon completing my workout, I commented to one of the staffers that “it feels kind of funny,” and explained it away as possibly being hungry. Driving home was no problem. The slight discomfort virtually disappeared. It was only after eating dinner that the some discomfort around the collar bone on the left side of the chest reappeared. I watched CBS “Sixty Minutes” with little or no significant change. But then, it proceeded with more discomfort I did not ever recall experiencing before. I resisted the idea of going to the emergency room.

I thought to myself “heart attack,” that can’t be the case. After all, every doctor visit, stress-test and EKG provided me with a clean bill of health. My diet was healthy; I exercised at least three times a week and walked over a mile almost every day. I did not abuse drugs of any kind, including prescriptions, which I took the bare minimum of and only in extreme cases. I rarely consumed alcohol, and if at all, sweet wines only. I also did not smoke. True, I puffed a few cigarettes in my late-teens, during basic training in the military, but soon found that a hot stick in my mouth was not to my taste.

I thought, surely, I was not a candidate for a heart attack.  Hence, when the pressure increased in the late evening, I was still convinced it had something to do with the “hiatal hernia.” I took a few Tums, and walked out to the cold fresh air, in hopes that the pressure would subside. It did not. I walked up and down the stairs seeking relief that did not come. On the landing at the bottom of the staircase, I suddenly lost consciousness for a brief moment. This was definitely different; it was also the single thing that convinced me to drive over to the emergency room.

An ambulance took me to the next hospital facility where they installed an aortal stent with a balloon and contained the heart attack. Following that procedure, I was ambulanced again to the heart specialty hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes, in Camden, NJ.  My mind was still not grasping the circumstances at hand. Can it be that I am actually suffering a heart attack? 

The following morning, Monday, in a hospital bed, I was informed by Dr. Joseph Kuchler, the surgeon who was to operate on me that the procedure required 4-6 hours, and that it involved a triple bypass. Anxiety overcame my emotions. I was thinking about how life could end without me saying what I have yet to say, do all that I wanted to do, and leave a legacy to my children.

But as reality set in and the idea of open heart surgery became imminent, I needed some assurances that this surgeon, while unknown to me, was indeed a qualified one. I was thinking of transferring to a Philadelphia or even a New York hospital, one better known for such open heart operations. However, I was told that the operation needed to be done immediately, and that transferring me may involve a great deal of danger. 

I called my personal physician to consult with him on Dr. Kuchler’s qualifications, and was told that he has done thousands of such procedures. Family flew in and friends drove to the hospital to be with me while the operation was underway.

Tuesday morning, I was taken unceremoniously to the operating room, anesthetized, and frankly, the rest is an unknown history. I came out of the operation knowing nothing, feeling nothing and barely conscience. I spent eight days in the critical care section of the hospital and gradually regained the ability to walk, talk, and think. Released from the hospital, I spent another week in a Rehabilitation facility, which serves to prepare you for the return to home recuperation.

Now, I am at my computer pondering how a few weeks can change your life. I felt that I needed to share this story with my friends and readers in order to provide a few important conclusions.

The first and most important lessons to be learned by anyone, young or old, is that it does not matter how fit you are, or how seemingly healthy you have been deemed by your doctors. In the end, it is all about your family history, your genes, and your physical inheritance. I was the guy that was healthy and fit, who never had colds, frequent headaches or other maladies, and yet, 90% of my three main arteries were blocked with plaque!

Another lesson is to listen to your body and not dismiss the slightest irregularity, even if it could be explained as a benign problem. I thought that my problem was an exacerbated hiatal hernia, when it was in fact the inconceivable - a heart attack.  When something occurs that is irregular, it is worth a trip to the emergency room, it can save your life, and it probably saved mine. Finally, I would like to believe that the Almighty God has given me another chance. Perhaps, in this way, God gave me the time to complete my mission in life.