Guy With a Heart (Condition)


Bill Tune

I never thought I'd be that guy - the old man with a heart condition, but sadly there are things in life over which we have little if any control.

I used to make a strong case against this possibility.  I've never had a serious weight problem.  (In my later years the dryer has shrunk my pants, but that's not uncommon.)  My blood pressure has always been exemplary.  My cholesterol has been checked often, after donating blood, and my low levels were the envy of all. As a preventative measure I even started taking daily baby aspirin, now known as low-dose adult aspirin, nearly 15 years ago.  My level of physical activity has not been stellar, but I can always find others who are less active than I.  That counts for something, doesn't it?  I also recall a physical examination a couple of years earlier when the PA commented how unusual it was for a man my age to be taking no prescription medications, and the painful-for-my-hairy-chest EKG looked good, too.  My wife even makes me eat healthy - sometimes, when it's not too inconvenient. 

This brings us to the Spring of 2010.  I'm in my second year of retirement from the classroom and still a “youthful” 59 _ .  (Close friends say I didn't look a day over 58.) As a side story, my son had whizzed through his college education in just over a decade, and we were planning a major celebration for his May graduation from UT, our first ever cruise!  Plus, my wife Beverly was preparing for a new appointment in June, which meant we were moving.

In April I started experiencing heaviness in my chest that was unlike anything I had ever felt.  I had already started moving some of the heavy boxes in the garage in preparation for the upcoming move, so I tried to explain away the discomfort as simple over-exertion.  But I knew this was different.  I started having difficulty drawing a complete breath.  I immediately went to the doctor to have it checked out.  (If you believe that, I'd like to talk to you about some property I have for sale in Florida.)

Hoping that the problem would go away, I took some extra aspirin, which helped some.  The discomfort did not go away, but it wasn't really getting worse and it didn't seem to be affecting my normal activity - much.  This continued for a couple of weeks, and each day I became more and more resolved to “do something about it” if it did not get better.  I was scheduled to work a weekend retreat in early May, so naturally, I went, but by this time I had definitely decided to take action after returning home.  I would first tell my wife because I know she loves me and would absolutely kill me if I dropped dead of a heart attack without telling her of my discomfort.  I did just that and made a doctor's appointment.

My main concern at this point was our son's impending graduation and celebration cruise just two weeks away.  I explained this to the doctor, and after telling him of my discomfort, I quickly added all the reasons why my heart should be okay.  Apparently, I did a pretty good job of selling him on my invincibility, because after the EKG came back normal, he strongly implied that had it been him, he wouldn't have even bothered going to a doctor.  However, since I had never had a stress test before, he scheduled me for one as a precautionary measure.  A couple of days later I was on a treadmill and connected to several wires.  It went very well, until my heart rate exceeded 170 bpm, then the attending physician started to notice a possible irregularity.  She informed me that there was no way to know for sure without a nuclear stress test.  Unfortunately, this test, where they use  an x-ray-type camera to show the inner workings of your heart, can only be administered by a cardiologist.  I again explained the need for expediency, and she got me an appointment for the following Tuesday, 3 days before graduation.

On Tuesday I went to my first-ever appointment with a cardiologist.  He had the results of my first stress test.  I told him about our plans for the weekend (and the cruise the following week) plus I gave him my list of reasons why my heart should be okay.  Then came the kick-in-the-teeth question.  “What about family history?”  My father, his 3 brothers, and one sister had all died of heart-related illnesses.  Oops.

The doctor looked at my chart again, then said, “You're 58 and a man.  I recommend an angiogram, and if you'd like, I could work you in this afternoon.”  This was stunning.  I asked, with my voice uncontrollably rising, “Isn't that surgery???”  He explained about the needle that would be used in the groin area and that if all was well I could go home today.  He added that if a problem was found, they could fix it and I could go home after spending one night in the hospital.  With our Austin trip just 3 days away, I appreciated the opportunity to do it quickly and get it over with, so I agreed.

With all the wisdom of a complete fool, I called Beverly and assured her the only reason for this quick action was my desire to get it over with before our trip.  I told her I would probably be coming home that evening and she did not need to be here for this minor procedure.  She immediately left her office and came to the hospital.  I'm glad she did.

During the procedure she waited in the designated area where a couple of medical-type people were also waiting.  One of them expressed interest in her new Kindle, and they had a lovely conversation.  During the angiogram the doctor found a 90 percent blockage of the main artery to the heart (A.K.A. “the widow-maker”) and was able to install a stent to open the blocked passage.  There were other minor blockages, but nothing that required immediate attention.  After the procedure I spent the most miserable night of my life in the hospital.  I had to lie still for hours to allow the needle hole to seal itself, and it was excruciating on my back.  However, I survived and was home by noon.  By the way, my procedure was performed at a small hospital just outside of Houston with no heart surgeon on duty.  There was a life-flight helicopter and crew on standby in case something went wrong with my procedure.  Beverly was visiting with one of the crew.

On Thursday, Beverly drove us to Austin.  We attended our son’s College of Education graduation on Friday morning and the whole-university graduation at the UT East Mall on Saturday night.  It was great.  I was definitely slowed down, but I did not have to miss anything.  Monday we left on our 5-day cruise from Galveston, and it was a perfect place to recuperate, a lot better than sitting around the house looking at boxes that needed to be packed.

About my “great” cholesterol readings:  A more detailed analysis of my cholesterol levels revealed that while my bad cholesterol level wasn't bad, my good cholesterol level was way too low, a major contributing factor to plaque build-up in the arteries. (I seriously doubt that eating pimento cheese sandwiches almost every day since retirement had anything to do with it.) So don't be too fooled by a low cholesterol reading.  It isn't always good news.  Also, I am now told that an EKG only measures damage that has already been done to a heart, not necessarily the stress it is currently experiencing.

So now I'm just another old guy with a heart condition.  I take medication for my cholesterol.  I took blood thinners for a year, but have cut back to a whole aspirin a day.  Current research indicates that this much aspirin has been proven to  sometimes help/sometimes hurt/sometimes no effect people who take it.  I find/don't find much consolation in such studies.

Fortunately, I have been very blessed by my experience.  I eat better, exercise more and enjoy a life with virtually no physical restrictions.  It hasn't even proven a good excuse for getting out of work, but I'll take what I've got and be thankful.  I guess it's not so bad, being the guy with a heart condition.


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