No, the title is not a reference to the last 30 seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, though that’s pretty much the exact phrase I walked around mumbling for three days following the game. Me and the other million or so folks living in the Seattle metro area.
Rather, “WTF Just Happened?” is about my latest adventure down the oft-twisted trail of living with heart disease.
A Little Backstory
Most reading this post will be aware of the fact that I suffered what an ER cardiologist called a massive heart attack back in April 2012. It was a whopper, one with a 5 – 10% survival rate.
Clearly I beat those odds.
What most are not aware of though is in the days after the heart attack I was asked repeatedly by my doctors if I had any symptoms of heart disease — primarily chest pain and shortness of breath. I kept shaking my head no. Then I recalled one very specific incident. About a week prior to the heart attack I was walking up one of Seattle’s steeper hills and I got a short, stabbing pain in the middle of my chest. It was enough to get my attention, and as I stood at that intersection I remember thinking, “Dude, you really need to get in better shape.” The pain never came back, and I swiftly forgot about it.
A few days later I was in the cardiac intensive care at Banner Heart Hospital in Mesa, AZ having just survived a “widow maker” heart attack — thanks to the swift actions of some amazing first-responders.
Fast Forward to a week ago
This time a week ago I was at a real estate conference in New York City. I’d been experiencing some shortness of breath for the past couple of months, but I attributed that to a case of the walking pneumonia (and the boogie woogie flu). As I strolled away from visiting the Zillow offices in NYC (very cool by the way) I had that same short stabby chest pain that I experienced in the days prior to my heart attack. A few minutes later, I had another one.
“Shit,” I said to myself. “This can’t be happening again.” For the first time since my heart attack almost three years ago I reached in my pocket for the nitro I always carry — it’s the first line of defense against chest pain and heart attacks.
The stabby pain never came back, the nitro went back in the pocket.
I’ll freely admit this experience was more than a wee bit terrifying. So I called my cardiologist back in Seattle to make an appointment.
“You need to come in right away,” they said.
“Can’t, I’m in New York City.”
“Then go to the ER there.”
“Can’t, I’m leaving right now to catch a plane back to Seattle.” (In hindsight, I SHOULD have gone to the ER in New York, but let’s just say I thought I was too tough for that. It would have be SUCH a hassle. Hassle or not, I should have gone then and there. That was stupid, I got lucky.)
We agreed to compromise with me going to the ER as soon as I got back to Seattle.
That was a really long six-hour flight as I sat there wondering what the hell was going on inside my chest.
I got home, told Francy what happened and off we went to the ER.
If there is a good thing about chest pain (there isn’t, but if you really stretch…) it’s that when you walk into an ER and say, “I am a heart attack survivor and I’m having chest pain,” they move really fast and will put you in the front of the line and help you right then.
So began the bevy of tests — chest x-rays, EKGs, cardiac enzyme blood tests. They can quickly rule out that a heart attack is not in progress, but they’ll admit you for “observation” and further testing.
And rule it out in my case they did. I did NOT have a heart attack last week.
Given my history, the stabby chest pains experienced in NYC, the recent shortness of breath and a constant slight “pressure” on my chest, the cardiac team at Harbor View Hospital felt I should get a heart catherization (cath) — a common but invasive test where a wire is run from your groin up though your femoral artery and into your heart. Dyes are injected and special x-rays are used to basically see the flow of blood through your cardiac arteries so they can see if there are any narrowing or blockages of the arteries that keep your heart healthy, beating and alive.
It was the same procedure that I had during my heart attack, which would quite literally save my life. This cath would be more diagnostic in nature. It was the best way to see what was going on inside my heart. My cardiologist felt it would be clear. After all, since my heart attack I’d lost 70 pounds, was eating far healthier than I was before and got myself in good enough physical shape to finish a full marathon on the 26 month anniversary of my heart attack.
New coronary artery blockages? Not this guy. I’d stuck my middle finger out at heart disease and have been wagging it the face of that insidious disease for almost 3 years.
Not so fast Sparky!
Cath day rolls around. It’s an interesting procedure. You’re awake, but given enough drugs to not really care about what’s happening, and you can actually watch your heart on these big monitors as they inject you with various dyes and contrasts to see the arteries in your heart working.
Then the cardiologist tells you, “I see one very significant narrowing that I’m going to try to open up and put in a stent” (where a titanium mesh “tube” is inserted into the artery to help keep it open).
WTF? I’ve been busting my ass for nearly three years, eating right (most of the time), walking and running a LOT, and I take a litany of heart medications including a daily dose of a cholesterol-lowering pill that’s big enough to choke a moderate-sized farm animal.
And you’re telling me I’ve got ANOTHER damn coronary artery narrowing? Really?
Well, whatever, not much we can do now. Stent the damn thing and we’ll figure out what to do next.
Turns out this one is trickier than the ones from three years ago as the doc has to actually go trough the side of one of the old stents to place the new one since this blockage is very close to the previous one. Later I would be told by another cardiologist that what this doc did couldn’t be done by most.
Tricky or not, he pulled it off and I was wheeled to recovery.
“So, am I going to go through this crap every three years?”
That was the question I posed to both the interventional cardio that did the procedure and my personal cardio.
To my relief, both indicated they felt this blockage was likely an “artifact” of the previous ones I’d had. I got a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo as to why, demonstrations with heart models, but they feel confident that my lifestyle changes are having a very positive impact on my heart disease. The new blockage may very well have been there all this time and closed just enough to start causing symptoms.
The cardio that did the cath told me my previous stents were “crystal clear” which is a great sign the lifestyle changes and medications are working well, ditto for the fact they found ZERO narrowings anywhere else. This is outstanding news.
So while having yet another stent placed is about the last thing I ever want to do, we’re all relatively confident that what we’ve been doing these last three years is working. Thanks to the new stent, I’ll have to go on anti-coagulant drugs again for another year (which sucks), and make a few more visits to the cardiologists office where all the 80 – 90 year olds in the patient waiting area will call me “young man” and assume I’m there with my parents, those are small prices to pay to be alive.
And alive is where I’d rather be. It’s pretty cool, that life stuff.
I’ve said it 1,000 times since my heart attack — stop smoking, lose some weight and learn the symptoms of heart disease. It would have been really easy to blow those pains in NYC off. Had I done so, it would have only been a matter of when, not if, I suffered another heart attack. Given the permanent heart damage I have from the first attack, surviving a second isn’t likely.
Fortunately, I listened to my body. I just felt like something wasn’t right and I told a small army of cardiologists that. Every one of them took that feeling seriously. But if I hadn’t said it, if I hadn’t followed through with trusting my gut and listening to my doc insist I go to the ER, it wouldn’t have been good.
For the medically curious, at the top of this post are “before and after” pics of my heart cath and the stent placement. There is a small hand-drawn arrow pointing to the 90% narrowing of my left coronary artery. The second image shows where the new stent was placed, and how now it’s all fat and lovely with full blood-flow.
To the cardiologists at the Polyclinic, particularly my personal cardio Dr. Kier Huehnergarth and my interventional cardiologist Dr. Peter Albro, thank you for everything. To the cardiac nursing staff at Swedish Cherry Hill Hospital, thank you, y’all are the BEST.
And to my family and friends that supported me and thought of me through all this, thank you again – – that support means more than you will ever know.
Please, go to these pages, and read them:
Heart Attack Symptoms in Women (men should read this too. You know women, I assume.
Do it, please. More men and women die in the U.S. from heart disease than all forms of cancer combined. You owe it to yourself, your loved-ones and your friends to know the signs of a heart attack