You never imagine that it will be you. But why not? After all, heart disease is the number one or two killer in every Western country. In the United States, there is a heart attack every 38 seconds. So why not you?
“Because I’m doing everything that protects from the ravages of heart disease.” More than 30 years ago, I went from Mr. Sedentary to Mr. Exercise. I lost a lot of weight. I changed my diet significantly. But then it happened. I had a heart attack. It was a small event, although it sure felt “large” when it happened.
It was a Monday night and I just finished making a siyum on an order of Mishnah with my whole family (minus my son fighting in Gaza). I helped my wife with the cleanup but felt pretty tired, weak, and fatigued. By 11:00, I went to sleep only to wake up at 20 minutes later with chest pain.
The long night
I’ve experienced chest pain before as I have a genetic heart condition called HCM-hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. (In short, my heart muscle is a little oversized.) But that pain only came on activity. This was spontaneous and strong. I sat up in bed, waited just a minute or two to see if it would pass (don’t do that if this happens to you), got dressed and went to the emergency room. My ECG showed a clear abnormality. The emergency room protocols kicked in and it was a very long night.
It took a while until they were able to manage the pain. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, by 8 a.m. I was being catheterized and was anticipating getting a stent. Instead of getting the stent, the attending invasive cardiologist said the word, in English with a thick Israeli accent TRIPLE—meaning, I had triple vessel disease. And then he looked at me and said, “Sir, you need bypass surgery; I can’t stent this.” Needless to say, after this whole ordeal, and after being awake the whole night, I didn’t take to those words very well and I was quite upset.
Within 45 minutes, the head of cardio-thoracic surgery was sitting next to my bed. “Don’t go home you need bypass surgery within the next 24-48 hours.” I then spent the next 8 days in the hospital. It is now 7 weeks after the initial event, and no, I haven’t had the bypass surgery. I did have a stent put in this past week, and I feel better now than I have felt in a long time.
A learning experience
Let’s take a closer look at what happened, why it happened, what I did right, and what I got wrong. There is a lot to be learned from my cardiac event.
First, because I have HCM, I just attributed all my pain and discomfort over the years to that disease. In truth, the HCM was masking what was really going on. I should have followed up on an examination 10 years ago, that showed I had a high calcium score, as well as a questionable stress test. Both results indicated further testing should be done.
The major question
Throughout this ordeal, people kept saying, “How could this happen to someone who has taken such good care of himself?” Great question! Here’s the answer, and it has many facets. First, everything I have done over the past 33 years in exercise, diet, and lifestyle, probably prevented this event from happening 10 years ago. In addition, these changes may very well have saved my life.
Second, was I really doing everything I needed to do on the preventative side to keep this from happening? Let’s take a look.
We all know that exercise is very good for cardiovascular health. It is good for many other things as well. It can reduce your chance of getting heart disease by as much as 30%. That’s impressive because all you need to do is get about 30-40- minutes of moderate to brisk walking daily. Putting in other modes of exercise is even better. So, from age 33 I became an exerciser and for many of those years I was running, and doing lots of it.
Walking and running for many years could add up to 50 kilometers or more a week. According to an old but fantastic study conducted by the late Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger, on a very large sample of people over a long period of time, 32 kilometers (20 miles) a week gives you at least 10 more years of life. Exercise didn’t prevent my heart attack, but it did save me. How?
All of my exercise built up collateral arteries in my heart. This is something not seen much in non-exercisers. My Left Anterior Descending (LAD) coronary artery was, and right now still is, completely blocked. These collaterals, what I like to call G-d’s natural bypasses, kept enough circulation going through my heart to keep me from having a heart attack many years earlier. More important for me, those extra arteries kept my heart attack to a relatively minor event leaving almost no damage to my heart muscle. Find time to walk every day or engage in some other aerobic exercise. Not finding time can cost you dearly. It’s a small investment with a great return.
Stay tuned for part 2! I will talk about how diet and other lifestyle habits might have been the probable causation of my heart disease and at the same time, my salvation. In part 3, we will discuss the medical system as I experienced it. My hope is that learning from my ordeal will help all of you to “add hours to our day, days to your year and years to our life”.