Today, I turned 51 years young. I have figured out the secret to celebrating the best birthday ever, and I would like to share it with you:
Be alive to have it.
Last year at age 50, I had a heart attack. I never smoked; I exercised every day, and was not (terribly) overweight. Well, the “heartburn” that I was having led me to see the family doctor, which led me to see a gastroenterologist. I told him that I had terrible heartburn, but only during exercise. Next day, I am getting a stress test, which I promptly failed. I went directly to the hospital. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Next thing I know, I am getting a stent installed in the main artery of my heart. I had just beaten “the widow maker”.
A widow maker is a nickname used to describe a highly stenotic left main coronary artery or proximal left anterior descending coronary artery of the heart. The term is used because if the artery gets abruptly and completely occluded it will cause a massive heart attack that will likely lead to a sudden death. The blockage that kills is made up of platelets streaming to the site of a ruptured cholesterol plaque. Even a small amount of plaque in this area can (for a variety of poorly understood reasons) rupture and cause death; bypassing chronic blockages or trying to open them up with angioplasty does not prevent heart attack but it can restore blood flow in case of a sudden blockage or heart attack.
An example of the devastating results of a complete occlusion of the LAD (Left Anterior Descending) artery was the sudden death of former NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert. From the minute a widow maker hits, there is a five-minute window of time to get to a hospital or receive emergency care.
Technology saved my life.
As I was awake during the procedure to install the stent in my heart, I watched (and listened) to the doctor work his magic. I had 100% blockage of the main artery of my heart. 100% blockage! How I was not dead, is truly a miracle. I usually played 3 hours of tennis indoors, every Friday night. Well, on this Friday, I was in a hospital. When a doctor says outloud “Wow, I did not expect this! You have a full and total blockage!” while watching him snake a wire and scope from your groin to your heart, you never forget those words. Ever.
I should have been dead. I walk my dog Bella in the park, every single day, a nice brisk walk. I could have dropped dead in the park – I should have dropped dead - lying next to Bella. Every time I walked fast with Bella, I got heartburn. No, it was not heartburn. It was the “widow maker” tapping me on the shoulder.
I am alive today, because my very wise and astute gastroenterologist suspected something going on, much more than just heartburn. I am alive today, because modern medical technology allowed skilled doctors to remove a clot from the main artery of my heart, by snaking a wire up to my heart from my leg – with me awake and watching in high definition. I am alive today, because I happen to live in a country where the medical technology to save my life was available, ready and waiting for me.
It has been almost a year since my heart attack. I now take pills every day, to keep me from ever having another clot. My second miracle: according to my doctors, I did no noticeable or lasting damage to my heart. Even though my main artery was completely and totally blocked, the other veins and arteries of my heart “stepped up” and produced enough blood flow to make up the difference. According to my doctor, if another physician looked at my tests and studied the digital images of my heart pumping (without knowing my medical history) they might never guess that I ever even had a heart attack.
Not only did I beat the “widow maker” but I kicked its ass.
I am 6’3” and around 255 pounds. Yeah, I could lose a few, but who could not lose a few? I was an athlete in college, and I still played tennis every week. My condition was genetic; it could happen to anyone, at anytime. Guess what: my doctor who installed my stent – my cardiologist – he had a stent installed just a few months ago! Folks, it can happen to anyone.
I say it again; technology saved my life.
And now I am hoping that another type of technology will save yours; the Internet.
I am blogging about this event in my life to hope that it does some good. I want everyone that I have ever met (virtually or in person) – and everyone that THEY know – to read and share this blog. Get tested, especially a stress test if you are over 50. Get an annual physical. Pay attention to your symptoms. The world is full of wonderful technology that can do some pretty amazing things. But you need to use technology, you need to embrace technology, and we all need to share our knowledge with the world.
My birthday wish: that you are here to read my blog next year. Please make your health the number one priority in your life, as nothing else matters, period.