Congestive heart failure or CHF is not a death sentence. Let that sink in. Breathe deeply and believe that opening line. It has been ten years since I was first diagnosed. It sounds terrible, heart failure, heart disease. I was terrified and had no idea of what to expect. Let me share with you, my story.
Heart Attack #1
Etched in my mind like the passing of a loved one. The first brush with the grim reaper is still fresh in my mind. January 11th 2011. Nearly ten years ago at the age of 39, I was truly scared. This day started just like any other work day, except this day was slightly different. It had snowed lightly overnight, dusting the roads with about six or so inches of freshly fallen snow. It was early, about 6AM. I headed out to clear the snow off the driveway with my snowblower.
Clearing the Driveway
The snowblower was an older type, gas, without drive wheels. One that you had to push manually into the snow, forcing it along. I wanted to get this done quickly so I wouldn't be late for work. The driveway was roughly 100' long and I figured if I ran with the snowblower, I would finish fast and head to work in a jiffy.
An Uneasy Feeling
I wrapped up blowing snow after about 30 minutes of running up and down the driveway. I headed inside. As I walked through the door, a wave of nausea came over me and I felt like I wanted to vomit. I was suddenly dizzy and lightheaded. I sat on the couch and told my wife that I wasn't feeling well. I sat on the couch for about five minutes or so until I felt slightly better. I assumed these symptoms were caused by inhaling the fumes from the snow blower. After resting, I grabbed my car keys, kissed the wife goodbye and headed out to my car.
Just Take a Nap
I started the car and let it warm up, sitting there, I started feeling nauseous again. Dizziness and weakness soon followed with an irresistible urge to take a nap. I thought to myself, just take a little nap, when you wake up, you'll feel better and then you can head to work. Immediately the dizziness got worse and then a shooting pain in my left elbow. My chest tightened up and felt as if an elephant was sitting on it.
Something is Wrong Here
I struggled to get out of the car, willed myself from that nap. I got inside and headed straight to the bathroom. I called for my wife. Call 911, something is wrong. I dropped to my knees in the bathroom, I vomited, I couldn't stand, the world was spinning. The pain in my chest and arm was excruciating. As I lay on the floor in the fetal position, vomiting uncontrollably, I kept thinking, this is bad.
The first to arrive were the local police. I remember the officer like it was yesterday. He was calm and reassuring. He ran to his car and brought oxygen. He held my hand and waited with me until the paramedics arrived. All the while providing calming conversation, telling me that everything was going to be ok. The paramedics rushed in, quickly diagnosed me with myocardial infarction. They gave me aspirin and loaded me on a stretcher. I saw my daughter on the stairs, she was seven. I called to her and told her "I love you". I said goodbye to my wife and was quickly whisked away in the ambulance.
We Need a Helicopter
Once aboard the ambulance, the paramedics radioed for a helicopter. Due to the current weather conditions, one would not be available to land in my location. The ambulance crew was forced to drive me to the nearest hospital and await helicopter transport to Philadelphia. They loaded me up with morphine and away we went. I remember being in the hospital. I was in a large white room. Doctors and nurses were standing around the stretcher just staring at me. The local hospital was not prepared for this type of emergency. All they could do was reassure me while we waited for the helicopter.
The Flight to Philadelphia
By now the morphine was doing it's job, I felt great. They hurriedly whisked me into the chopper and away we went. During the flight, I remember telling the flight medic that I felt great and that maybe this whole thing was just a mistake, gas or something. She laughed and said that she didn't think so. As we landed in Philadelphia, I vomited all over my self. What an entrance. They whisked me to surgery and I vaguely remember counting down from 10, 9, 8......
I woke up in a hospital bed. I felt like I was run over by a freight train. My left leg was immobilized and a heavy weight was laying in my crotch. I later found out that the weight was there to prevent bleeding from my femoral artery. The surgery consisted of a catheter being inserted in the femoral artery located in my groin area and snaked through this artery to the blockage in my heart.
The doctor came to see me after surgery, it was explained that I suffered an LAD myocardial infarction. In layman's terms, a complete blockage of the left anterior descending artery in my heart. Also known as the Widowmaker. The surgeon was able to clear this blockage and inserted two stents in the area to prevent the artery from collapsing. A stent is a tiny, expandable metal mesh coil that is inserted into the freshly cleared area of the artery to hold the artery open.
Three Days in the Hospital
I stayed in the hospital for three days. After about eight hours of laying immobilized, they removed the weight from my groin. I had to pee but was unable to on my own. They had to insert a catheter to allow me to urinate the first time after surgery. Side note, it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. The next day they were adamant that I get up and start walking. I walked around the hospital ward for two days straight it seemed.
After two days of walking the hallways in the hospital ward. I became somewhat of a celebrity. The staff referred to me as a "walkie talkie". What this means is that generally speaking, the majority of the folks on the ward were elderly and not in any condition to walk and talk around the hospital. I was an anomaly being only 39 and in great physical and mental shape. I could "walkie" and "talkie"
After 48 hours of walking in circles around the recovery ward, I was finally discharged. I was provided with a handful of prescriptions, an appointment with a local cardiologist, and relegated to wearing a portable defibrillator called a Life Vest until further notice. For those that don't know, this is a device that straps to your upper body and has electrodes all over it. It is designed to shock your heart back into rhythm if it detects a heart attack or irregular heart beat. I wore this for four months. After I was discharged, I went to my doctor's appointment and was scheduled for cardiac rehab which I attended for four months. I completed cardiac rehab without an issue, ditched the defibrillator and lived a normal, healthy happy life for the next 8 years.
Heart Attack #2.
I lived the next eight years. I lived through a divorce, a career change, homelessness, the loss of my beloved grandmother, and many other challenges. Having not forgotten I was provided a second chance, I soldiered on through these struggles.
Depression and Anxiety
In 2019, I suffered a bout of depression. I stopped taking my medications everyday and started taking then sporadically. I wasn't sleeping properly and I stopped following my heart healthy diet.
In the summer of 2019, I began experiencing intermittent chest pains in the mornings. After several weeks of this, my chest pains became more frequent. I went to my cardiologist and he scheduled me for immediate surgery. Back to Philadelphia, back to the hospital. Exactly like the first time, two stents were placed after the blockage was cleared. I was released the same day. After four more months of cardiac rehab, I was back to my old self again.
Shortly after completing cardiac rehab, while at work, I suddenly wasn't feeling well. I decided to take a walk around the grounds to get some fresh air. After about 10 minutes or so, I started getting dizzy and disoriented. I leaned against the wall of a nearby building. I suddenly couldn't stand, I slumped down and it felt as if I was paralyzed. I don't know how long I stayed like that. I remember finally having feeling restored to my extremities and walked back to my office. My staff immediately knew something was wrong, I couldn't speak. I was disoriented and unable to communicate with anyone. I think they called 911 and I awoke in the hospital.
The neurologist at the hospital was able to successfully utilize a procedure called Thrombolysis, essentially, "clot buster" medicine. Ischaemic strokes can often be treated using injections of a medicine called alteplase which dissolves blood clots and restores blood flow to the brain. This use of "clot-busting" medicine is known as thrombolysis. I stayed for a couple of days until they decided I was healthy enough to be discharged. I dodged another bullet!
It's Halloween, 2021. I've lived nearly ten years since the first heart attack. I've lived through a pandemic. I keep on living. I hike, bike, and climb mountains. I travel as far as I can afford to, photographing and writing about my experiences. I live every day like it could be the last. When the topic of my health comes up in conversation, I used to say "my heart attack" or "my stroke." I don't own those things. They happened and I moved on. It's now "a heart attack" or "a stroke". If you are reading this and you have had a heart attack or a stroke or maybe recently diagnosed with heart disease. Remember, this is not a death sentence. Stay positive, follow the doctors orders, follow a heart healthy diet, exercise regularly, and above all, take your prescribed medications properly. Live your life to the fullest and be thankful to be alive.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.