Heart Before

I went into the University of Tennessee cardio unit yesterday for a scheduled appointment to check out my heart. I ended up getting a stent in my left anterior descending artery. More commonly known as the “widow-maker”.

This is a terrible term because women are just as likely, if not more, to suffer heart attacks as men. In fact, women are five times more likely to die of a heart attack than breast cancer. 600,000 people a year die from heart attacks.

Bottom line—I had what would have most likely been a fatal heart attack in the near future pre-empted by the excellent work at UT cardio.

For most people, the first sign they have a heart problem is a heart attack and far too often it’s too late.

I’m writing this to pass on what I’ve learned and hopefully help someone else.

First, don’t think it can’t happen to you because you eat right and work out. etc etc.

I’ve always worked out hard, especially cardio. I ran marathons when younger, including sub 2:50. I only switched from running to biking several years ago due to damage to knees and a torn Achilles from my military deployments. And I don’t tool along on the bike. I push.

I bike hard, around 100 miles a week. Knoxville is a great place to bike with many miles of greenways. I also do the Little River trail from Walland to Townsend and up into Smoky Mountain National Park past the Cades Cove Wye and take the turn to climb up a thousand feet in altitude via Middle Prong road. Or Foothills Parkway up to the middle top and turn around.

On days I don’t bike, I “ruck” with the dogs on hilly trails for several miles. It’s what we called a “nerf” ruck in Special Forces where we normally carried over 100 pounds. My current one is maybe 20-25? I actually list what I carry in it on my free slideshows page, making it basically a small grab-n-go backpack. It’s a good workout, not just cardio but for the leg muscles to work the ones not covered in the biking.

So what was wrong? My family, on my mother’s side (she did at 67) has a very bad history with the heart. I have high cholesterol but not high enough to set off alarm bells after my physicals. I’ve never smoked, which is a big contributor. I was actually in pretty good shape, my weight was good, and I was working out. I figured my working out trumped the higher cholesterol plus my diet wasn’t that bad.

But. About two years ago I noted I was biking slower. I didn’t feel like I was slower. I wasn’t any more out of breath. I was just slower. Not by much. Being the Asperger person I am, I note all my workouts on my calendar and my speed was averaging about 1 mile an hour slower on the same routes. Less than 8% slower. I put it off to getting older.

Then this past year, another mile an hour slower. About the same rate.

But the first true alert was I started having chest pain while biking about two and a half months ago. Center, high pain that radiated down both arms. Not unbearable. More irritating.

I’d have blown it off except it was real pain and I didn’t know what was causing it. So, I went to my doctor and he did an EKG. The results were perfect. But I insisted we figure out the pain, so I was referred for a stress test which included a nuclear heart test. I’d had the treadmill stress test before. I aced that according to the EKG. But about a week later I got notified that something was spotted off on the nuclear heart test. That’s where they inject radioactive dye via an IV and an imager does a scan for like twenty minutes moving all around. They do it twice. At the start and then after the treadmill.

In a way, I was relieved. Because I knew something was wrong. I was starting to get out of breath doing simple things, like bringing the garbage can up the driveway. I hadn’t stopped biking, of course, because I am an idiot. I use workouts not just for the physical benefit but as an anti-depressant because I am a writer. Goes with the territory. As a young Meryl Street says in Postcards from the Edge, I’m in it for the endolphins.

So, I went to see the consulting Cardiologist and he didn’t seem overly concerned but he said I did have a blockage, they didn’t know how bad, but they thought it wasn’t that bad given my condition etcetera. BTW—these first appointments took months to get. I got scheduled for the cardio catheterization for a week later. Yesterday.

I was the first one in at 0630 for an 0800 procedure. I liked that we crossed the LD/LC at exactly on time at 0800 after prepping. Military people will know what I’m talking about.

I had my first inkling this was serious when they rolled me out of the prep room to the area where the real work is done. It reminded me of walking into an SFOB, Special Forces Operations Base, on deployment that was in the midst of running multiple important missions. People there moved with a purpose. You could sense the atmosphere of professionalism.

When they moved me onto the table, everyone knew what they were doing, and you could feel the efficiency of a team working in rhythm. Unlike my heart. My meeting with the doctor was her standing at the foot of the table, masked, with goggles and apparently very short, telling me she was going to take care of things. Really, I’ve got no idea who Dr. Litton is in person other than that. I would have asked if she had tiny little instruments, aka Seinfeld, but it wasn’t the time or place.

Frankly, a day later, I’m still groggy. As my wife says, Sleepy Time Tea knocks me out. So whatever they gave me yesterday still has my head a little woozy.

BTW—they went in through the wrist rather than the groin which is relatively new from what I’ve read and I’m glad. But they are going into a large blood vessel. So I have to keep an eye on that.

I didn’t even get to talk to the doc afterward because she was on to the next case. But my wife did and said the surgeon was really happy about finding the blockage and fixing it. Me too.

How do I know this was deadly serious? They gave my wife the before and after images. The arrow on the before points to the peak of the blockage. Note the massive difference in blood flow in the after.


Honestly, it hasn’t sunk in yet.

Don’t think you’re immune from a heart attack because you have a healthy lifestyle. You’re better off, but not immune.

Listen to your body. Pain is not weakness leaving the body, which was a saying on my Special Forces A-Team. Pain is an indication that something is wrong. Find out what that is.

Don’t take the people in your or anything else for granted.

And enjoy the day!