Most Saturday mornings, I bicycle with a group of men, mostly in their 50s, whom I affectionately call the “Cheat Death” group.
We are all in pretty good shape, competitive but supportive, and convinced that hardcore exercise is our ticket to postponing the inevitable.
The ride a few Saturdays back was a tough one. At 6:30 a.m., the pack took off fast and immediately headed for the hills. The first few climbs felt pretty good, but by the third hill, I started to feel nauseated.
Figuring that was probably a result of the four beers and large Chinese dinner the night before, I kept going. After a while, I had fallen to the back of the pack. I was short of breath and wondering how I was going to make it much farther.
I am someone who hates to quit. But after the third time, the group had to stop and wait for me, I decided I had no choice. I watched them pedal away, then lay down in the grass.
I was angry and scared. For the first time my body had given out on me, and I had no clue what was going on. Besides the nausea, my only symptoms were a persistent cough and an overwhelming feeling something was not right.
I called my wife and got a ride home. After showering, I lay down in bed and started thinking. Though I have a stressful job and a little too much around the middle, I had a clean bill of health. I had good cholesterol numbers and a great doctor, and recently I had passed a cardiac stress test.
That’s when Tim Russert popped into my head. In the last couple of weeks, like almost every middle-aged man, I had taken a very personal interest in every detail of his story. Yes, he was overweight. But hadn’t he just passed a stress test?
That’s when the light went on. I bolted out of bed, went to the computer and Googled “How do you know you are having a heart attack?” The first website that popped up had a list of warning signs. As I read on, I started to sweat.
Ignoring the website’s advice to call emergency because I was too vain to have an ambulance pull up to my house, I drove to the hospital.
A doctor attached some wires to my body and conducted a quick EKG. Minutes later he said I was suffering a heart attack.
This is one of those times that defines your life, like the death of a parent or the birth of a child.
In a split-second, you cross the invisible before and after line and realise nothing is ever going to be the same. For that moment, my life had been removed from my hands. But I kept thinking, I’m supposed to be invulnerable. I’d passed a stress test, drank red wine, used a lot of olive oil, exercised like an insane person. This could not possibly be happening to me.
The doctor took out a large needle full of a sedative. The rest is a blur: a trip in an ambulance to a larger hospital, sirens blaring, an hour on the table in a cath lab, a stent implanted to open the blocked artery, my wife crawling tearfully into my bed to give me a hug, a doctor showing me before-and-after pictures of my artery, and losing his temper when I asked when I might return to work.
There were no warning signs. No sign I was suffering from coronary artery disease. A piece of plaque in one of my arteries just broke off and created a massive blood clot. When it did, I suffered a severe heart attack. If I had not gone to the hospital, I might very well have died.
I am one of the lucky ones. I get to hug my wife and my kids, understand how wonderful my friends are and realise exactly how much I love my life.
It is a debt I can never repay.
– Michael, 56