Physcian, heal thyself.
Physician, heal thyself. Or at the very least, recognize when you’re about to die.
Recently, this truth became my reality when I was within days, or even minutes, of experiencing a fatal heart attack. As a physician and former college athlete who exercises regularly and eats right, as a guy who has neither high cholesterol nor any significant family history, I thought I was the last person in the world to have heart disease. Turns out I was wrong. Though I initially dismissed warning signs and symptoms, acknowledging them and seeking proper medical care saved my life. Given the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., I decided to share my story. If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.
Earlier this year, as my 49th birthday approached, I decided to train for the Martha’s Vineyard half-marathon. This was not a stretch. I’ve done two marathons in the past. I run regularly and exercise at a moderate level on almost a daily basis. But as I was starting to increase my mileage, I noticed some nagging symptoms. During an easy warm up jog, I felt chest pain and discomfort in each forearm. I knew these could be signs of a heart issue, but I wrote it off as soreness from a recent intense workout that had included 100 pull-ups and 200 push-ups. However, over the course of the next several days, when my soreness should have been waning, the pain in my chest and arms persisted. I did find it unusual that this only happened when I ran, not during other strenuous exercise. Doubtful that anything could be really wrong, I decided to forge ahead with my training.
But on Friday the 13th, of all days, my outlook changed. I woke up that morning to run along a well-known route from my home. A mile in to the run, the now-familiar chest discomfort began, followed shortly by pain in both forearms. I thought maybe if I just slowed down and settled in the symptoms might improve. By a mile and a half things had persisted and intensified. I knew I had to stop. I turned around and slowly walked home. My friend the cardiologist, who is now my cardiologist, tells me that this decision probably saved my life.
I called my internist on the way to work. I was able to rearrange my own patients and leave the office for an appointment later that morning. There, my EKG was totally normal. We reviewed my recent cholesterol and it was fine. We discussed any familial risk factors for heart disease – I had none. However, despite my normal labs, normal EKG and no risk factors, we agreed that though it made no sense that I would have heart disease, my symptoms were too typical to ignore.
Over the coming days, a failed stress test lead to a cardiac catheterization, a procedure done to be “better safe than sorry”. It was expected I would be home the same night with a clean bill of health. I will never forget the words I heard during the procedure … “Jesus Christ … Son-of-a-bitch. Well I guess we know what the problem is.” A major coronary artery (LAD) was 99% blocked - a lesion ominously called a “Widow Maker”. Had the artery become completely obstructed I would have had a massive heart attack. The chances of surviving a heart attack with this specific blockage is very slim.
My cardiologist was able to open the blockage with balloon angioplasty. He then put in a stent to keep the vessel open. The problem was solved. I was able to go home the next day. I was back at work by the end of the week. I was running again the following week.
I am very lucky. There was no reason to believe this would happen to me, no way this could have been predicted. My cardiologist at follow up: “I still have no idea why the F#@K this happened to you.”
I sought care based on my symptoms and a likely fatal event was avoided. I share my story in hopes that others may be as fortunate. Know the risk factors for heart disease. Know the symptoms of heart disease. Don’t ignore them, and whether it makes sense or not, have any concerning symptoms evaluated. Take care of your body, you only get one. Live today not knowing for sure if tomorrow will come.
I consider myself beyond blessed when I think of what could have been. That half marathon is still going to happen. I will just be in October instead of May. And maybe it will seem just a little more special.