Donnie Sanchez continued to work 12-hour shifts at a local manufacturing plant as discomfort in his chest came and went. When he woke up in a sweat one September night with severe chest pain, he took a Motrin tablet and went back to bed without saying anything to his wife, Cynthia.
After fessing up a couple of days later and taking a trip to the Kaiser Permanente emergency room, the 61-year-old was forced to face the truth: “I had had a heart attack.”
“He was 90 percent blocked in three major arteries and they scheduled him for open-heart surgery,” Cynthia added. “Our world just changed.”
Every year, one in four deaths are caused by heart disease in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. The nonprofit advocates for healthier choices each February for American Heart Month — and all year long — to help men and women decrease their risk of cardiac events.
Sanchez said his family and coworkers were surprised he’d had a heart attack, since he was hardly ever sick, had never taken medications or had any major operations or illnesses.
“I thought I was eating pretty good,” he said. “I used to run, I coached wrestling and I did a lot of sports with my kids. I couldn’t believe this actually happened to me.”
Sanchez underwent open-heart surgery on Sept. 28. Two weeks after he was released from the hospital, his cardiologist ordered him to go to Cardiac Rehab, a program offered by Kaiser Permanente to patients who have had any type of cardiac event or have been newly diagnosed with cardiac disease.
Cardiac Rehab care manager Virginia Bailey, RN, instructs a two-hour class on how to eat healthier, live a more active lifestyle and manage stress. Then she calls or meets with her patients regularly throughout the next six months to monitor their progress.
“We are trying to prevent or decrease the risk of this happening again by making the lifestyle changes,” she said. “This is an emotional time for them and sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”
Bailey has seen an uptick in the number of cardiac patients she sees, but said she isn’t sure whether the increase is due to more people having access to healthcare and thus getting properly diagnosed, or because the disease is becoming more common.
“I’m getting eight new patients a week — that’s a lot,” she said. “I get more during the holidays and tax season, when there is more stress.”
She’s also seeing an increase in the number of heart patients in their 30s and 40s.
“This is not an ‘old people’ disease anymore,” Bailey said. “My patients range from age 24 to 90. The average age is 55 right now.”
Younger patients are often in denial of their symptoms, and even their doctors might attribute aches and pains to stress, rather than heart problems, Bailey said.
“The younger population thinks ‘this isn’t going to happen to me,’ but we need to educate them that yes, it can happen,” she said.
Cardiac event symptoms present differently in each patient, Bailey said, so many people don’t realize there is anything seriously wrong.
Women may feel pain in their back rather than their chest or arms, Bailey said, and some people feel a pain in their jaw or tingling in their fingers.
“Many don’t have the typical elephant sitting on the chest, vomiting, shortness of breath, pain going up the arm — it doesn’t happen that way,” she said. “So they keep going and going and going.”
Kind of like Sanchez, who said he was in denial about his symptoms and continued to put in long hours and even work on his yard.
Bailey said this rushed, stressful lifestyle is all too common.
“We’re going at too fast a pace right now,” she said.
In Cardiac Rehab, Bailey promotes what she calls “farm style living.”
“We have to get away from the computers, cell phones, electronic devices,” she said. “Go out and take a walk. We have to get moving again.”
Doctors recommend 30 minutes of exercise each day.
“Patients need to listen to their body. If their body says stop, they need to stop,” Bailey advised.
A diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits is also recommended.
“Step away from the fast food,” Bailey said. “I think that’s been a ruination of our society.”
Cooking with fresh ingredients doesn’t have to be inconvenient, she assured.
“You can cook a wonderful meal for a family in a crock pot, and involve the family in cooking,” Bailey said, noting that incorporating diet and other lifestyle changes as a family helps the individual patient achieve greater success.
With the support of his family, Sanchez has changed his eating habits, cutting out processed foods and consuming very little red meat. He also walks every day, retreating to the mall during poor weather.
Sanchez smoked cigarettes since he was 12 years old, but wasn’t a heavy smoker, he said. His heart attack and subsequent surgery made him quit cold turkey.
“If that was the cause of you getting the way you were, then why take it?” he asked. “It doesn’t make sense. You went through all this, everybody was caring for you, the doctors did their best to keep you alive. Why do you want to destroy it by doing what you aren’t supposed to be doing?”
Sanchez it thankful for the people who kept him alive and the co-workers who thought about him while he was healing. He advises everyone to quit smoking and start healthy habits before they end up under the knife like he did.
“Life is too short,” he said. “Be strong, be hungry to live.”
Heart Attack Warning Signs
Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Stroke Warning Signs
Spot a stroke F.A.S.T.
Face drooping - or numbness. Ask the person to smile.
Arm weakness - or numbness in one or both arms
Speech difficulty - slurred or hard to understand
Time to call 9-1-1 if a person shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away.
Source: American Heart Association