In technical terms, what I suffered on the next-to-last Friday in April was a STEMI, a ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction.
This type of heart attack, defined by blockage of a major artery and dying heart muscle, has a nickname: “The widowmaker.”
I knew I was in trouble when I woke that Friday with intense pain across my chest and between my shoulder blades.
A couple of days earlier, I had felt something similar, but less severe, after working in the yard on a day when the pollen count was extremely high. On that occasion, I took an ibuprofen and soon felt fine.
Working in the yard had caused lesser moments of discomfort the previous three weeks. I would come inside and, within minutes, feel better.
Prior to this, I had no hint of anything troublesome. But on that Friday morning, ibuprofen was ineffective, and I clearly needed medical attention.
Given where we live and the routes to local hospitals, and the prospect of morning rush hour traffic, we decided to avoid the highway and head down a local road to Emory University Hospital. As my wife drove, I felt every bump and crack in the pavement acutely. [Yes, we could have/should have called 911, but chose not to wait. We were fortunate.]
I walked into the emergency room under my own power. In the equivalent of catching a series of green lights, the ER waiting room was empty. Despite searing pain, I was able to converse with the emergency room staff.
I was wired up for an electrocardiogram, my oxygen saturation level was checked, and my blood pressure taken. I was given nitroglycerin tablets and a morphine drip.
Within minutes, I was wheeled to the cardiac catheterization lab, where I shed my clothes in favor of a gown, and was hoisted onto an operating table, surrounded by doctors, nurses, and technicians.
Things got a little fuzzy after that.
My left anterior descending artery — which carries almost half the blood that courses through the body — was clogged. The other arteries in my heart had compensated, until they could not compensate further.
I wasn’t knocked out, but was sedated enough that when the fog lifted, I thought that the procedure to implant a stent in my LAD was just beginning, when, in fact, it was finished. My next stop was the cardiac intensive care unit.
From my perspective, all of this happened seamlessly.
The pain in my chest was gone. Glancing at the monitors over my right shoulder, my pulse and oxygen level were good, and my blood pressure was significantly lower than when I walked into the emergency room.
The reality check came in successive visits from cardiologists. Each bluntly delivered the same message (including mention of the aforementioned “widowmaker”): I was lucky to be alive.
To prevent another heart attack, which might well kill me, some things needed to change — immediately.
I now have a daily regimen of six drugs, some that I will take for months and others for years to come.
My diet has improved, primarily by the elimination and reduction of some items and increases in others. The least healthy items — the deep-dish pizza I enjoy in Chicago, Southern favorites such as fried green tomatoes and fried okra, and some of the special dishes at my favorite neighborhood eatery — will be remembered fondly.
I am walking, a little more each day. I will do cardio rehab. I plan to be a regular at the neighborhood pool.
Presuming that the stent keeps open the previously blocked artery and, if the combination of drugs, diet, and exercise restores some function to a muscle at the base of my heart, then I should have years ahead of me, I’m told.
The heart attack scared me. I’ve also scared my wife (about whom I cannot say enough), my children, and my family.
Without putting too crude a point on it, a shiva was a possible outcome. It is preferable to hear in the present from friends that they are thinking of you than to think of them speaking about you in past tense.
I am thankful for advances in the technology and the pharmacology to treat heart attacks. I am beholden to the skills of the cardiologists and the care that I received from the nurses.
I am aware of the reprieve I have been granted. The road ahead will be long and slow, requiring patience and perseverance.
It beats the alternative.