Friday, November 7, 2008


Life is a lot like a sporting event. It's played on an open field in a finite amount of time (though we don't know how long the game clock will run). It has its own set of rules and penalties and comes with its share of players and coaches, cheerleaders and competitors...and goals. Life has its injuries, enders;season enders;career enders.

I just suffered a season ender. At 37 years old, I was benched by a heart attack.

The heart attack struck on Friday, October 3rd at 3:25 PM. But it really began about a week and a half earlier and I had no idea.

On Wednesday, September 24th, during a 6 mile run, I noticed a discomfort in my chest when my breathing peaked. It felt respiratory in nature. Like I was breathing bad air. As soon as I ended my run and my breathing returned to normal, the discomfort went away. I suspected it was a symptom of running during a bad air quality day, but the DEQ listed the air as green and clean. Then I thought I might be getting sick and with only 5 weeks until the Marine Corps Marathon.

On Saturday, September 27th, I ran 15 miles with Rachel. We left around 8:00 am and the humidity had already climbed to about 80%. Breathing comfortably became a challenge early on and I experienced the same sensations as on my previous run. I struggled through this one, posting a miserable 11:40 per mile average. After the run, as my breathing returned to normal levels, the discomfort disappeared again. I chalked it up as a bad day and started thinking about what I can do next week to improve the long run.

I took a few days off after that run to recover the lungs. I considered seeing a doctor, but took echinacea instead which seemed to help. The night of the Vice Presidential Debate, the discomfort came back. This time, I wasn't running. I was relaxing and watching the debate. Again believing this was respiratory, I spent 10 minutes in a steam bath trying to loosen up whatever it was. No good.

On Friday, October 3rd, I had a particularly long day planned. At work by 3:30 am to finish up compiling packets for a new client just before a long drive to Roanoke, VA. By 4:30 am, I had the same discomfort in my chest and I began to get worried. As soon as my doctor's office opened, I phoned and made an appointment for later that day.

The rest of the day went as scheduled. We left for Roanoke at 5:00 am and arrived at our meeting at 8:45 am. I felt fine all throughout the meeting. It wasn't until we were about an hour outside of Richmond on the way home that I started to feel bad again. The same discomfort came back, but this time it was more severe. As we neared Richmond, I felt worse and worse. When we were about 10 minutes away from the office, the discomfort had turned to pain and it spread to my arms, my hands and my jawline. I knew something was seriously wrong.

We made it to the office and dropped off Eric and Tarrah. I was considering whether to get in my car and go to my doctor's office as scheduled, or just go to the hospital. When I got out of the car and couldn't stand up straight, I knew the answer. Elizabeth drove me to Chippenham which was fortunately right across the street. On the way I called Rachel. I didn't want her to panic but I began to cry when I tried to tell her where I was going. I simply couldn't grasp what was happening to me and I didn't want to find out the answer.

I arrived at the ER at 3:15 pm. The cardiac team worked quickly to stabilize me. The pain was unbearable now. I got an aspirin and a nitro patch. The nurse said the nitro patch would either make the pain go away, which would indicate a heart attack and probable heart damage, or it would give me a headache, which would mean no heart attack occurred. Within seconds of the patch being applied, the pain began to go away. Good and bad news at the same time.

Rachel made it to the ER within 15 minutes of my call. I was impressed with her composure. I was the wreck. At first I was told it was not a heart attack...that the EKG didn't look abnormal and my first blood test came back fine.

The Cardiologist, Dr Newton, visited after about an hour and looked things over. He initially assessed this was a stress induced event. He said he'd keep me in the hospital over night, do a stress test in the morning and then release me.

However, the longer he stayed with me, the more he realized I was still in a great deal of pain and should not have been. He ran a 2nd blood test and it came back with elevated enzymes. He decided to admit me to the IVCU and said I'd be there for a couple of days.

After settling in the hospital room, the last place I wanted to be, they took a third blood test and hooked me up to the monitors. Rachel stayed the night. She slept in a chair. I'm glad she was there.

Around 12:30, Mike, my nurse, came in and woke me up. He was explaining something I didn't understand. Rachel told me to do what Mike said right away. He handed me a phone and Dr Newton was on the other end. I wasn't quite following what he was trying to tell me, but the result was an emergency heart catheterization. Apparently, my third blood test came back with extremely high enzyme levels. Dr Newton was in his car on the way to the hospital and ordered me to be prepped for the cath lab.

The procedure took about an hour. I was sedated so I don't remember anything other than thinking about my daughters and hoping to see them soon.

My next point of lucidity was back in my room. Dr Newton was explaining his findings to Rachel. They didn't have to put in a stent or do any invasive work. In fact, my heart grew a colateral...that grew its own bypass. Dr Newton said this is something that is genetic, but you have to have a strong heart for it to work. He credited running for giving my heart the strength to do it.

But the news isn't all good. There was damage to a tiny vessel which was blocked, and there was damage to the heart muscle. The extent of the damage will be unknown for sometime. The 2 marathons I trained for were out. In fact, Dr Newton said running is out for a long time. Over the next few weeks, he wanted me to rest. The most activity I could do for exercise is to walk. And then came the meds. Blood thinners, alpha blockers, beta blockers, cholesterol reducers, blood pressure droppers, anxiety reducers, sleep aids and aspirin.

I was in the hospital from Friday night until Monday afternoon. I was glad to get home. I was glad to see my daughters. I was glad it was only a season ender.

The next 3 weeks at home were difficult. That will be in part 2.

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