Dodging DeathFor the past twelve years I have carved four or five days out of my week, to slide into a pair of shorts, slip on a light t-shirt, tie on a pair of trail running shoes and head out into the foothills or mountains to clear my head and surround myself in beauty... running through what has amounted to many tens of thousands of miles of trails.
Six days ago, a mere ten days after my 50th birthday, I headed out for a mid day run behind my house, located in a canyon winding up to the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Santiago, Chile. I returned after a few hours, jumping into my pool, to cool down & clear the dust and sweat from my body. Within a few minutes, I started to feel my left arm becoming very heavy, with a dull pain in the shoulder, causing me to make what amounted to a wise decision, to get out of the pool. Within minutes the pain became almost unbearable, so I started walking down toward my house, as I entered my bedroom I started to feel a heaviness from within my chest, as if something was trying to push my heart and lungs from within my body... causing me to lay on my bed; stomach down. I quickly found myself ruminating through the many bulleted lists of heart attack symptoms that I had seen since I was a 23 year old college kid, which happened to be the year that a doctor diagnosed me with a genetic predisposition to "create" highly elevated levels of cholesterol, which he informed me would one day lead to a serious case of cardiovascular disease.
My whole life I have been trail running, mountain biking, swimming and hiking my heart into shape, and keely so since my 20's, knowing that my years were numbered and that one day my arteries would continue to narrow until the plaque became so thick I would need to take high doses of cholesterol drugs to stave off the inevitable; surgery and possible premature death.
For the past eight years I have been taking high blood pressure medicine, eating many varieties of fish (mostly salmon), whole grains, poultry, countless fruits and vegetables... often washed down with a glass of red wine and a few cubes of dark chocolate. Of course there were times where I gulfed down a burger on the sly, savored a thick slice of cheescake and munched to the bottom, a bag of chips... often washing them down with a salty beer or two; often wispering to myself that "... a guys gotta live...".
A few years back my cardiologist told me that I would need to go on cholesterol reducing medication, and that even though I felt I was doing almost all the right things, resulting in a strong heart, being in great physical condition, I could not exercise or eat my way into a - change in my genetics; "punto! "(period).
After feeling more symptoms, I grabbed my phone, pulled up safari and googled the warning signs of a heart attack, just to be sure, realizing I had almost all of the list published by the Mayo & John Hopkins, this was followed by me calling out to my 16 year old son Aidan telling him that I think I was having a heart attack. Now, don't judge me on this one, as I know it was not wise, nor the safe decision to make... but I chose to drive to the emergency room at a hospital about 20 mintues away, as I knew that the ambulance would take much longer to find my house, as it is perched on the side of a canyon, off a windy and confusing maze of roads twisting through the mountains. On the drive to the hospital, many dark thoughts entered my mind, from dying to suffering a stroke, to leaving my children and other loved ones behind.
Upon arrival, I walked into the emergency room and told them that I was having a heart attack... I have to say, the quick and highly professional response at the hospital, Clinica Alemana, that I drove to, saved my life.
Within minutes, I was stripped, cleaned, punctured & prepped and was stretchered into an ambulance. Shortly after driving away, I felt myself slipping and was stirred back to reality by the placement of two adhesive pads being afixed to my chest, which I later learned was to shock my heart if it stopped beating.
Upon arriving at the main clinic, I was rushed into a prepped operating room with a highly talented surgeon and his team ready to save my life.
After being given a local anesthesia that ran up my right arm, the doctor quickly slipped a catheter through a puncture hole in my artery; finding that my artery was 100% blocked, he told me to hang on and that he was going to open it up. As he cleared the plaque, he told me that I would feel a rush of blood into my heart and that I might get light headed... his last words were like a far away echo, as I felt myself slipping, being stirred by voices screaming at me to cough. After struggling three times, I managed to cough and upon doing so, the voices became louder until I found myself back on the operating table, staring at a plastic covered metal box looming over me, making strange sounds.
Hours later I was tethered by cords, clips and bed railings within the intensive care unit, unable to get up for two days. Each day the surgeon or cardiologist stopped by to talk with me about a follow up surgery they wanted me to have done, on my other two arteries leading to my heart, as they were 80% & 90% blocked. On the third day in the hospital, I had another angioplasty surgery... resulting in a total of three stents being placed in my veins, in order to allow the blood to start flowing into my heart.
The images of my blocked arteries, and the post clearing and stenting of them, with a rush of blood filling a web of vessles surrounding my heart, has been etched into my brain; simultaneosly terrifying and strangely beautiful.
As I write this, I am at home, laying in my bed, processing the reality of the fragility of my life and how fortunate I am to have escaped death or severe damage to my heart tissue; leaving me with only a freckle sized blot of tissue that dyed as it was starved of oxygen.
I now find myself swimming and sometimes drowning in a pool of emotions -- feeling thankful, fortunate, scared, nervous, elated, and damn lucky to have the chance to live, to continue to raise my two boys and of course myself, as I feel the necessity of the wisdom of an aged mind needing to care for a body that feels increasingly physically fragile.
I also feel alone and emotinally fragile, realizing that a lifetime of forging a sense of fierce independence is in need of support and empathy from a "tribe" of survivors; I welcome and appreciate any thoughts, advice or words that will help me piece myself back together.