Still vertical, still breathing


Bill Sparling, Contributor ~

For years, I routinely responded jokingly to the pro-forma greeting of “how are you” with “vertical and breathing is the goal.” Now, having just returned to work from a heart attack, it really is the goal.

So, my first symptoms were pain beneath the sternum, nothing else.

Having heard many lectures about heart attack symptoms, I recognized it but because one: it was without any of the other symptoms we are taught to expect and two: because of my history of acid reflux I considered the pain to be (quelle surprise) acid reflux. Ironic when you consider that I am the unit safety officer and first aid support falls within my purview.

It hit me, off and on, for some time and one day, at work, got really bad. So bad, in fact, that I made a doctor’s appointment to have it checked out.

Fast forward one week to the doctor’s appointment.

Within five minutes, the doctor tells me to get my furry behind to the emergency room: “Now, or you will die.”

Five days and an angioplasty later, with stents, I am ready to go home with a year’s supply of meds and a bunch of follow-on appointments. By the way, angioplasty is a surprisingly painful procedure that you are fully conscious during and feel everything as they monitor you to ensure that a stroke doesn’t occur.

So, here’s the nitty-gritty. I had blockage of an artery feeding the heart muscle. Due to the time elapsed, my heart was compensating and developing alternate blood flows to protect itself, so damage was limited. The angioplasty opened up the blockages, removing the built-up plaque, and the stents ensure the artery will stay open.

A week’s rest at home and  then it was back to work, albeit with a few minor changes while I regain my strength. Note, some people require a longer period of sick leave, but I’d go not-so-quietly nuts if I took too long. But I am being careful and have a supportive work environment.

Why me? Well, it comes down to two major reasons: genetics (family history) and lifestyle. I can’t do anything about the genetics, but lifestyle is another matter.

Like most of my generation, my eating habits are terrible. Having spent years in the Canadian Armed Forces, like the majority of us, I habituated to not paying much attention to exactly what I am eating and to eat quickly and move on (eat and get out). Snacks weren’t paid much attention to either, so I had a high salt content in my overall diet, thanks to processed foods.

Of course, this, over time, gave me high blood pressure. I always responded to concerns about my blood pressure with a joking “better high blood pressure than none.”

During the period immediately before and during this incident, my blood pressure was spiking over 20 points higher than usual, even my usual high blood pressure readings.

Part of lifestyle includes physical activity. Over the years, as I aged, my level of activity decreased in intensity. Aches and pains were accepted as the part of the price of getting older, like losing some hair, and without realizing it. This also affected my overall cardio-vascular fitness. Without noticing, I got old. Bummer.

So here we are, facing a new dawn and a new realization. My wife, bless her, has put her foot down and laid down the law. I am now being more careful about what I eat. (Did I mention my lovely bride went through the house and threw out everything that was edible?) Alcohol is not an issue with me, so that’s one change that isn’t needed. Cardiac rehab includes a guided fitness class I will be starting following medical clearance. I will be making time for breaks and mild exercise, including some walks at lunch instead of working through and eating at my desk. The dog will continue to get lots of walks, maybe even longer ones.

In short, like so many others, effectively I brought this on myself by neglecting my health through ignorance. In my generation, we were not taught to look out for this sort of thing or to prevent it through a little common sense. I’ll be doing better now; my wife will be making certain of that. Regardless of generation, all of us should start paying attention to our own health.

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