1. MY HEART ATTACK
It was June 6, 1986, and I was enjoying a restful Sunday at home. Suddenly I began to sweat profusely, then became nauseated and started vomiting. I took my blood pressure. Usually at the high range of normal, it was now alarmingly low - 83 over 63. I called my doctor. He told me to get to the emergency ward of the hospital at once. Soon after my arrival there, I was told it was a heart attack. I could not believe it.
In spite of my insistence that I was okay (it was now three hours after the attack and I felt fine), I was wheeled up to coronary intensive care where I spent the next few days. After that, I was closely monitored on the cardiac floor another six days. I was then sent home to rest three weeks before returning for an angiogram - a procedure involving the insertion of a catheter into an artery and on into the heart. Dye is then injected into the catheter and monitored on a TV screen to see if it runs into any blockages. Rather than resulting in a clean bill of health as I had expected, the angiogram showed the right main artery completely blocked and the other main arteries 75% to 95% blocked. Two weeks later I consented to bypass surgery (quintuple, as it turned out), an option I might not have agreed to if I had known then what I know now.
How had it come to this? Although I was 57 years old, I had stayed in shape by playing two hours of vigorous tennis at least three times a week for the past 15 years, had not smoked for 22 years, almost never touched alcohol and stayed away from salt, sugar and eggs. I did not consider myself overweight, and my blood pressure was normal with medication.
I did not want another heart attack and I certainly did not want any more open-heart surgery, which meant some questions would have to be addressed:
- What could I do to reduce the stress that I knew had been a key factor in my heart attack?
- Was I exercising properly?
- Were my eating habits really as healthy as I had believed?
- What medications would be best for me?
This project now became my number one priority, and has resulted in my learning more than I ever expected to know about the heart, the body and the enormous power of the human mind and spirit. I feel lucky, not only for having survived the heart attack, but also for having had it in the first place. Why? Because nothing short of such a traumatic event could have finally shocked me into taking a hard look at myself and making the changes that were not only necessary but also long overdue.
I began a journal, posting every change in my medications, diet and lifestyle from that point on - also listing each significant event in the years leading up to the heart attack. This cause-and-effect experiment did not yield immediate results. In fact, a setback occurred in 1990 when my annual stress test revealed an abnormality. A thallium stress test was then ordered, which showed that my grafts were beginning to close after only four years. A thallium stress test is similar to a regular treadmill stress test, except that at peak exertion, thallium is injected into a vein. Exercise is then stopped and the patient lies on a table under a scanning camera. By now the thallium has reached the heart, so the camera can take a series of pictures measuring the percentage of heart muscle not receiving adequate oxygen. If an area of the heart muscle is receiving an insufficient blood supply, it will show up as a dark area or "cold spot". After a few hours, more pictures are taken, and if the blood flow deficit (cold spot) has filled in (or "redistributed"), the muscle cells are not dead and the condition is reversible if blood flow to the area can be increased.
My 60 percent cold spot in February of 1990 was reduced to only 10 percent in December of 1992 - a dramatic improvement in just 34 months. It is not clear whether the improved blood flow is the result of clogged arteries unclogging, new collateral circulation developing, or both - but my heart and I don't care. We're happy.
I have charted each and every significant change I made during this period as new studies in the field were published and I acquired a greater understanding of my own condition. These charts appear later in this report. I cannot be sure precisely which changes had the most effect in this turnaround, or whether some had no effect at all - but I feel that some conclusions, which I will enumerate later, can safely be drawn. One thing I know - I will stick with my current lifestyle and continue my present diet, medications and vitamin therapy because the combination of some or all of those things has restored me to the robust good health that only a few years ago was in serious jeopardy.
I was extremely fortunate that my heart attack caused no significant damage to the heart muscle. It would probably have been fatal if my years of tennis had not caused my body to build a strong life-saving system of collateral circulation. This served as a natural bypass, supplying my heart with the blood it needed when my main artery closed.
In July of 1992, six years after my heart attack and bypass surgery, I won a gold medal in tennis at the Minnesota Senior Olympics, playing three matches in one day for a combined total of four and a half hours. I won the final match when, after splitting the first two sets (both were tie-breakers), my opponent was unable to continue. To me, this was pretty convincing evidence that my heart was getting an ample supply of blood.
Even now, more than a decade after my heart attack and bypass surgery, I play one or two hours of singles tennis several times a week. Although my opponents are usually younger than I am, I get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that if one of us runs out of gas, it won’t be me.
Now let's get into the four categories identified earlier as problems needing my attention. Since I believe stress was the precipitating factor in my heart attack, we'll start there.