Luckiest Man alive and the Widow Maker
Okay climbers, this is an article for you! You know who you are. You, like me, will watch your favorite sports on Sundays, after a gym climbing workout; may eat healthy food with friends; and for the most part are extremely physical in almost all sports, and pretty much ignore your wife, partner, or friends if they tell you that you ought to get pesky little health things checked out, right?
Wrong, dead wrong. I have a story for you Mr. or Ms. climber, and you are probably reading this because your wife, husband or one of your annoying friends has passed this on to you for some strange reason. If so, and you’re like me then you’re lucky, really lucky.
First, a little bit about me. I am a climber guy, and like lots of climber guys I formerly lettered in some in high school sports. I also am an avid all kind of workout fiend. That’s right, for twenty years I went to the climbing gym three nights a week and exercised like a banshee on the weekend too. My idea of an after work ‘workout’ was hitting the gym; 40 minutes of cardio, followed by 5 sets of 5 on the bench with 225, then 3 sets of 5 with 285, then 50 pull ups, 2-3 hundred sit ups, 5 sets of curls, stretching, and then sport gym rock climbing half a dozen 5-11s, a few 5-12s, and a couple of 5-10s for 4-6 hours. Okay only three nights a week. On the weekend, Saturday was my day off and usually involved outdoor sports doing half a dozen 5-10s, a few 5-11s, and maybe a 5.12 or two sport climbs after packing-in an 80 lb pack a mile or two. Sometimes I would alter this routine and do a 1,000ft rope solo climb on Saturday and only a 2 mile hike in with a 100lb pack full of climbing gear.
Like I say, I am your "average" late 40 early 50 climber doing what I always have done. Sure there were some brief periods of down time as I nursed a broken bone or some tendonitis, but pretty much that’s me. Oh, also, part of this story is I eat well. I like light food, Thai, veggies, nutrition bars, water bottles and such. I really am not one to abuse food, and can pretty much take it or leave it, or fit it in to meet a fitness goal. Also, I have been a stunt man in the Screen Actors Guild for several decades, so I’ve taken my share of hits along the way for fun and some money.
Why do I say I am an average guy, because there are scores, millions of climbers like me that live for outdoor adventure. They, like me, pretty much think they are safe from the health issues faced by our brothers that are now overweight, over-stressed; eat bad food; smoke and drink too much. Hmm, still haven’t captured your attention because let’s see, you don’t climb that much (or climb more), and are a former near Olympic swimmer; or a marathoner, Leadville 100 dude, a competitive cyclist that hits 400 miles a week, or maybe you don’t ski either? Or just that you’re a climber/racquet ball player, race car driver, semi-pro something, or just a golfer that climbs on occasion etc. If that doesn’t ring a bell, how about the sudden heart attack death of journalist Tim Russert. Jogging any memories?
Have I possibly captured your attention? Yes a few, well good, for the business executive that hits the gym in downtown Manhattan every day at 6 am before work, and you’ve been patiently waiting for me to get to my point since the first sentence. Well sorry, here comes the punch line, you can die of a heart attack without warning, if you are ignoring signs because your mind and ego tell you that you know how to run your life, and that you are healthy and can just work your way out through this ..symptoms issue.
Here is my story. Three months ago I flew to Canada for a contract job in the beautiful harbor port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. While there working, I stayed with some family; their kids caught colds, so I went and stayed somewhere else, and wound up catching a nasty cold of my own. I was finding my superior fit self struggling to keep pace with people just walking to work. I had pain in the center of my chest and was out of breath, coughing, often having to stop and bend over to catch my breath and wait for the wave of exhaustion to pass. I had a miserable cold and a good Canadian doctor helped me get on the right antibiotic which knocked the cold symptoms (coughing, fever, and congestion) out of my body in a few days while working. I felt much better after that with as much rest as I could muster between work days. I flew back to Colorado feeling good and accomplished. Things went quite well. I was climbing in gyms again pulling pretty hard and working out almost to my previous level. I noticed, at times, some of the climbs hurt the darn lungs a bit and I had to rest till the pain passed, but it did seem to get better.
My wife would say to me, "honey, you should get your heart imaged, like I heard on the radio, that saves lots of people if they catch it soon enough." I am thinking, I just had near pneumonia and was informed some of the symptoms could hang around awhile, so why waste money and time on that, I’ll just continue to eat right; exercise, and rest my way through this, this spell.
Well, the ski areas opened up so I’d go ski. Yes, I burned almost everyone down the slopes, including the 20 year old hot shots; but my lungs would hurt, and I would get to the bottom and have to recover on the lifts.
Hmm, I thought, I am getting better, but this lung thing sure hangs on. I was finishing a documentary about chasing tornadoes at the time and was quite busy too, so on I worked.
I then had a chance to interview for some work in Nevada and meet up with some climbing partners, so I flew to Vegas. I signed the waivers, ignored the signs, and rode the Big Shot on the top of the Stratosphere tower as soon as I got to Las Vegas. I swam; hit hot tubs, drove around, did some work, and led a 600ft 5.8 climb and half a dozen 5.8s and 5.10s after fairly lengthy hikes-in. My friends are exceptional athletes. I’ve always been known for keeping pace with almost anyone. A year ago I made it nearly to the top of Longs Peak and back to the ranger station parking lot in around 6 hours, some twenty miles of grueling hiking, so I am not a slouch. But I found myself at the back of the pack catching my breath and that pesky traveling lung pain coming back. My climbing partner Rob is a very experienced ICU nurse and we also had a doctor friend, Jeremy, climbing with us. I told them about my near pneumonia with chest pains, and they both told me I should go in for a 12 lead EKG and cardio pulmonary stress test, asap.
"Crap," I thought, "it’s not just my wife, now it is my peers," one’s been working for decades in an ER and the other friend is sporty MD at a nearby hospital. Okay, I promised, when I got back, I would do just that. A few climbs later on a fun 5.10 I came off and my lungs burned like fire and I had to lie flat for 20 minutes, before I could even sit up while grabbing my chest. A nice woman came by and shaded my eyes from the sun until I could sit up. I then hiked back to the car, some 2 or so miles without any trouble at all, and felt great the next day as I flew back to Colorado. When I got back, I scheduled the EKG appointment, had an aspirin a day, and religiously started taking Omega 3 again. I was feverishly trying to finish my documentary. I continued working out, and went skiing at Breckenridge and experienced the same pain. This time it was after ski runs while walking through the lodge before a hot tub. I started checking my blood pressure and heart rate at pharmacies. The numbers always looked good. I had low blood pressure and a low heart rate. Hmm, that was a strange pain though, and I was experiencing exhaustion even walking through a ski lodge now. I figured I was getting out of shape or something, but somewhere in the back of my mind, my greater mind was telling me, this is a red flag buddy, do not push now, go in and get checked out. I finished and Fed Ex’d my draft documentary, and that night I felt the pain and exhaustion while walking up the stairs. At this point I am thinking "darn it all, something is wrong." I told my wife I was going to the doctor tomorrow, and she said, "why not now?" I thought for a bit and said, "because it is 3 o’clock in the morning, and I need sleep." I woke up, and called the doctor, and had two aspirin. It was December 30th and all appointments were booked. They asked me if I was experiencing pain now. I said, "no," and they said, "you are to immediately drive to the ER, and tell them you need a 12 lead EKG." Darn it, that EKG word again! I drove to the ER.
I got a 12 lead EKG: they took blood, and measured my blood pressure and pulse rate. Well, to my little ego’s self satisfaction, my EKG was a very normal sinus rhythm; my blood pressure was 128 over 78; my blood tests were negative; and my pulse rate was 68. I was relieved, but not really. Four other men came in the ER right when I did, most of them had worse blood pressure and heart rates than I did, and were overweight. But my internist looked at me and my print outs, looked me in the eye and said, "there’s something I don’t like, your story about the progression isn’t good. I am recommending you for an immediate referral to the hospital to get a catheter heart imaging using a dye test." Fortunately, Dr. Paul Louis was chief of the medical staff (House) and saw what all the tests and x-ray failed to see. Of the four of us chest pain complainers, two of us, including me, went to the hospital, the other two were sent home with medication. I of course had no pain so I drove to the ER. I was chastised for driving there by the admissions staff when I got to the hospital. I told them I didn’t drive a family member drove me. I was nervous and my wife said hold your angel’s hand. I called a climbing friend of mine for a reality check. After all, I was confused with having such good heart EKG, blood work, x-ray and stats., and was wondering why I was doing all this hospital stuff. Dr. Kara, my friend, is an avid climber, fantastic skier, works at a hospital and knows me and my simple mind. In a soft voice she told me there were three things I needed to do now, and asked me if I was listening. I assured her I was listening. She said, "Good, Number 1, you listen to what they tell you in the hospital, got that?" I said, "yes." She said, "Number 2, you do what they tell you in the hospital." I said, ..okay, and in a delicate way that she knew I would understand she said, "and then shut up." Okay, Kara, I got it, and in I went.
I am the luckiest man walking. With my good normal blood test results, EKG and otherwise, I could have easily slipped through the cracks just before New Years eve. It just so happens, I instead landed in the care of one of the best cardiac hospitals in the nation with a top cardiac surgeon on call, Dr. Nelson Trujillo. I have my own set of spiritual beliefs and thank God and the universe for that possibility. You see, this particular cardiac surgeon is so well known that it takes months to get an appointment for a cardiac screening with him, and here I was, and by luck, he was ‘on call.’ I signed the consent forms for heart imaging and procedures, if needed, including shunting heart vessels, or bypasses, if an emergency arises. I wasn’t worried, I figured I’d get an image and maybe learn what wasn’t working quite right, and get a prescription.
The Widow Maker, yep that’s what I had, and am the luckiest guy alive right now to be writing this story. I woke up with three titanium shunts in a 99.999 percent collapsed left main artery that feeds blood to the left ventricle of my heart. This is a fatal, life threatening condition. You’ve seen the headlines guys. Maybe a few of you are still reading for the punch line. When a star athlete is on a court and drops dead of a heart attack, or when someone you know was walking to work and is boom gone, well, that, my friends is the Widow Maker, and I had it!!! My cardiac surgeon seriously laughed and said, "angels were working overtime keeping you alive."
This is what the experts say about it, Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) is, "..a swift and unexpected death caused by a heart condition or mechanism, which may or may not be obvious. SCD varies in its range of definition. Usually, though, it applies to a situation where the person, who was thought to be free of heart disease, or only had a "mild" heart disease, suddenly died."1 The reference goes on to say, "the first symptom of the disease is sudden death."2 My particular brand of SCD is the Widow Maker, " As the name implies, this particular condition results in sudden deaths among men, leaving their wives widows. This is usually due to a severe blockage of the left main coronary artery. "3
This last bit is for you guys whose wives or friends have gotten you to read this article, and you were smart enough to read through to this point, "Interviews with family of the victims usually reveal some angina (chest discomfort or tightness), or heart irregularity, and/or shortness of breath, and worsening of the symptoms over a few days or a few hours before sudden collapse and death in 75% of these people. Some of these symptoms may even be self-diagnosed by the victims as indigestion, fatigue, muscle pains, or depression. Self-denial (of symptoms) makes this condition treacherous. Anyone with any of these symptoms should consult their physicians without delay."4
After my heart surgery procedure, and while hooked up to IV’s and electric leads galore on New Years Eve, I had good friends visit me in ICU, and a great friend Dr. Elia and his wonderful wife Sona came to my room with some Martineli’s to help celebrate New Years: I survived.
I have been saved today, and enjoy this day like a treasure. Yes, as you may guess, I am not out of the woods. Outside of my recovery, I have lots of old person pills to take to keep me alive. You have seen them on the news like I have. Now I am taking them like my life depends on them, because it does. My diet has changed a bit. Even though I had taken some Omega 3 before, and eaten healthier than most, I am now on a super low cholesterol and low sodium diet. I already don’t smoke and don’t drink, the one main sacrifice is cheese, all the rest of the recommended low carb diet I have been eating for years. I have cardiac rehab in my near future, I may be able to ‘reverse’ some of the plaque in my arteries, or may be facing another cardiac stint operation or possibly a bypass, God willing. The good news is that my cardiologist believes I will again be able to ski backward down avalanche chutes at thirteen thousand feet filming people ski steep some day. Don’t tell him, but I skied a double black EX chute two weeks after surgery.
Have I gotten your attention now Mr. or Ms. athlete? Oh yes, women get SCD too, it just manifests the disease differently. Healthy women, you don’t have to be smoking crack to have a heart attack either, if you have a genetic pre-disposition for retaining bad cholesterol in your arteries, you can be secretly walking with the Widow Maker.
Do you know what to do? If not, I am going to tell you. Number 1, listen to your wife, husband, partner, family member, or friend and go and get a heart imaging. If you have a family history of coronary artery disease, have elevated bad cholesterol and exhibit some or any of the symptoms I’ve described, and especially, if you think you are too fit to have a heart attack, get heart imaging or a cardiac stress test immediately. If the frequency of your chest pains is increasing, like mine were, call 911. I think part of the reason I am still here to tell this story is because someone out there needs to read this article today.
Many blessings to you all and may everyone have a wonderful, happy, and healthy 2010.
References and Footnotes:
- 1-4 cebudoctorsuniversity.edu/hospital/cardio/chua174.html, "Heart to Heart Talk" with Phillip S. Chua, M.D., CEBU Cardiovascular Center, (c)2003, Raoul R. Diez, M.A.O.D.