21 July 2012

This is Not the 99% I Wanted to Be a Part of...

I spent a majority of last week in Overland Park, Kansas, partaking in matters of both business and pleasure. Throughout my visit I kept having the same thought over and over: "Why am I so tired?" For whatever reason, I could not get my engines going. No amount of caffeine in the morning nor sleep at night made me feel any different. 

I must be getting old.

By five-thirty Sunday afternoon I was in my car and on my way back to Chicago, determined to make it home with as few stops as possible-one for gas and dinner, and one or two for a restroom.

I only made one stop, in Des Moines, Iowa. I stayed for two days. And it probably saved my life. 

I feel off.

I've made this drive a dozen or so times before: I-35 north to Des Moines, then I-80 east into Illinois before catching I-88 for the last 100 miles or so home. It takes about eight hours, and is at least an hour faster than taking I-70 across Missouri to St. Louis and then I-55 to Chicago. On the way down to KC five days prior I was annoyed by the construction on 88 west, so much so that I considered taking the longer route home until I realized that it really wouldn't save me any time.

Kansas City to Des Moines is almost exactly two hundred miles, and for most of it, I felt weird. I've found that I cannot adequately describe what I mean by "weird." If you've seen the Jodie Foster movie Contact you may recall the scene towards the end where she is traveling at the speed of light and her face seems to separate from her body. That is how I'd describe how I felt, and it is not adequate.

I'm gonna pass out.

An hour before or after and I would have been in the middle of nowhere (the ride from Des Moines to Iowa City is especially void of civilization) but for reasons I will forever be thankful for the extreme nausea and dizziness arrived just as I did into the outskirts of metropolitan Des Moines. By the time it felt like someone behind me was stabbing me between the shoulder blades I was in the city itself.

I would very much like to know the person who came up with the idea to affix the large blue 'H' symbol to highway exit signs so that I may buy him or her several drinks. At around 8:45 PM, in the twilight of an Iowa summer night, I was certain that I was having an emergency, and had I not seen that H I don't know where I would have ended up. Most likely I would not have ended up at Methodist West Hospital in West Des Moines.

I hope I'm wrong, but I believe I'm having a heart attack

As it turns out, I was wrong. I was not having a heart attack. I didn't find this out until Tuesday morning though because the cardiologist on call in the ER Sunday night wanted to assume that I was, so after being treated for several hours I was admitted, and early the next morning underwent an angiogram, where it was determined that I needed a stent in my proximal left anterior descending coronary artery.

As I said, I did not actually find out until Tuesday morning that I never had a heart attack. I also found out that I needed a stent because my artery was 99% blocked. Technology is a wonderful thing: I saw a video of my artery before, when the dye used during the procedure was barely passing through, and after the blockage was removed, when the dye flowed freely towards the rest of my heart, as oxygenated blood does now.  

I'm a lucky man. I dodged a bullet. But I fired the bullet, too.

I recently turned 45. I'm 5' 9". I weigh 235 pounds. I don't exercise regularly. I'm married to a wonderful woman. I have two beautiful sons under the age of five. What the hell was I thinking?

It's hard to convey but even when I was most alarmed, most frightened by my symptoms while driving, I never felt like I was going to die. It was more like a feeling of "uh oh, something's wrong and I gotta find out what." However, once I heard that one of the arteries that supplies blood to my heart had been 99% blocked, all I could think of was how did I not die, be it that night, or the day before, or the week before. Who knows how long I was walking around with this? The day before I left for KC, I spent a few hours in my backyard cutting up and hauling out large pieces of a tree that we lost in a storm, and I brushed off the slight twinges I felt between my shoulder blades as just fatigue on a hot day.

It's been very hard facing my kids since I got home Tuesday night, simply because every time I see their faces I am reminded of what could have happened, how I could have just disappeared from their lives forever. I feel the same when I look at my wife. I almost abandoned my family. It's the worst feeling I have ever experienced in my entire life.

But I have to forgive myself, because I now have work to do. I have to change the way I live if I want to stay alive, and I cannot do this if I am caught up in the guilt of my prior selfish lifestyle habits. Frankly, it has been easy this week avoiding food that I have eaten before that I now know is horrible for me; I don't miss it. Yes, it's only been three days, but the choice is simple, isn't it? I change. Or I die.

I will have a much harder time conquering the challenge of getting in shape. I have never been in shape. I need to lose at least fifty pounds. Five-zero. That's a lot. And it can't be done all at once, which means it will take dedication, persistence and time. 

I'm nervous, but not scared. I'm nervous that I've already done too much damage to my body and have sealed my fate of an earlier-than-expected grave. I'm nervous that as time passes I will become someone who is convinced that every little ache and pain is the harbinger of something much more threatening. I've always been aware that some day I am going to die, so this is not the sort of thing that will trigger a midlife crisis. Still, I have to be realistic: I could already have died. The fact that I did not means that I'm still relevant and I can still gain control.

Blockages in the left anterior descending artery are commonly referred to as widow makers because the heart attacks they trigger are usually sudden, massive and fatal. I struggle reading that, knowing that this whole experience could have turned out much differently for myself and the people I love the most.

It's great to be alive.

I'm not someone who is going to start lecturing others about the way they live their lives. All of us to some extent choose what we are, what we become, and what we will be. I thought I was lucky before for reasons unrelated to this health scare. I had no idea what luck really is; luck is knowing that you could have lost everything in the flash of a second, and now have the ability to avoid something that terrible with just a little resilience and dedication.

I am amazed at how simple it all seems sometimes.