“He’s having a heart attack!” Those were the unbelievable words I heard the ambulance driver say as they put me on the gurney! “Me!” was my vague thought as waves of nausea swept over me and the pain in my chest grew. Was this really happening?
It all started two weeks ago, on Nov. 1, when I went to the gym to do a hard workout. I felt good and after a half hour of cardio, l went to weightlifting and squats. As a former world-class decathlete for the U.S., I’ve been doing this stuff for decades while also keeping a strict all-around regimen with no smoking, alcohol, etc.! I take my fitness seriously, so when I began to feel nauseated and dizzy I decided to leave.
Halfway out I realized I couldn’t make it any farther and collapsed on a bench in an empty hallway. That’s where an employee found me and called 911.
In a fog, I felt the Community Hospital crash team put lines in and 30 minutes later the doctor said, “You had two total blockages in your right cardiac artery and I put two stents in.” Maybe I hadn’t fished for the last time yet?
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Two days in ICU gave me time to think. Upon reflection, and after talking to my physician, Dr. Leonid Zhornitskiy at Kaiser, I realized I had been very lucky. Quick action had kept the damage down and I would recover soon. I was fortunate I hadn’t been in the middle of nowhere when it occurred. Here are a few thoughts from my experience that might help someone.
I think we all find it embarrassing to admit we are having a problem! Maybe it’s nothing?
The first thing that caught me off guard was that the attack hadn’t happened as I thought it would. I initially felt nauseous and a little funny, but there was no chest, arm or neck pain, which I considered the regular symptoms. Food poisoning came to mind at first. It fooled me into procrastinating and not getting help. Since an attack may not manifest itself initially as you imagine, you could be wasting precious time to react. The chest pain came later.
I also had incorrectly assumed that if I stayed in good shape, ate right and kept my cholesterol down, I would be OK. I hate taking meds, so I avoided them religiously, but as my doctor pointed out if you have inherited the gene for heart disease you have to get proactive. My dad had died from a heart attack, and I had tried to avoid the issue. World-class marathoner Alberto Salazar had three major attacks he survived during his training days, with heredity trumping fitness. You may need medication.
I also believe that sportsmen are particularly susceptible to heart attacks for several reasons. First, I think it’s not unusual for a guy to go out hiking, climbing or hunting where great physical exertion is common; many have been doing it all their lives. It’s normal for our brains to tell us we can do it again, even after a relatively sedentary or stressful lifestyle. The cocktail of ignoring our true health and fitness combined with doing heavy work, sometimes at altitude, with a tough-it-out attitude and often in remote areas with no help can be disastrous.
I also think we all find it embarrassing to admit we are having a problem! Maybe it’s nothing? Funny, my tough farmer dad actually went back up the same hill to see if his first attack earlier was real! Yikes! Dr. Z. also told me many guys get in their cars and drive away, alone and vulnerable.
My heart attack was not unique, but I was blessed it turned out OK! I’ll be back soon. Do you have a sneaking suspicion you might have a problem? I hope you confront your fears and get checked out! Forewarned and forearmed! Yes, I also think the good Lord was teaching me a personal lesson about “catch and release!” Never – ever – give up!