For my 36th birthday, I was in the hospital. The outlook was not good. I could barely breath. The cardiologist told me my heart was at 15 percent of working capacity. He was frankly surprised I was conscious, let alone walk. He also told me that he had 27 years of experience, and in all that time, I had the largest human heart he had ever seen; he described it as the size of a wild boar’s heart. Before any major tests were even done on me, before any medication had been prescribed, I was placed on the national list for seeking a donor’s heart. I was told if I didn’t have a heart replacement within two years, I would probably only live another 5 to 10 years.
I was 36 years old. Still pretty young.
How did I get there?
At the age of 21, I ran four miles every day. I lifted weights three times a week. I weighed 200 pounds, all of it solid muscle. By the time I was 36, I weighed 300 pounds, and practically none of it was muscle. How did it happen? Laziness? My wife said just the opposite. I worked too much. I had a middle-management position and worked 50 hours a week on my slow weeks, and usually more like 60 to 80 hours. I hadn’t had a vacation in a decade. I was too busy to eat properly. I ate on the run all the time, often at my desk at work.
How it began
The first change I really noticed in my body was my breathing. I was having a hard time catching my breath. Not in a million years did I think this could be because of heart problems. I actually thought it was allergies because it had been a warm summer and we had been doing some renovations on our house, which had put up lots of chalkdust and wood dust into the air. I just figured it was my allergies acting up. I’d get over it. My breathing would get better once we finished working on the house and the summer was over.
Then my wife had to leave me for three months. Her mother had had surgery and needed someone to take care of her. I was on my own for most of the next three months, seeing my wife on weekends when I’d drive the four hours to her mother’s. All the while, my breathing was getting worse.
Finally, my wife came home. She had been home only two days when, on another hot summer day, I took the kitchen garbage outside. By the time I came back inside, a time span of perhaps two minutes at most, my ankles had swollen up to twice their size. It was scary. I had never seen anything like it. My wife wanted to take me to the hospital immediately.
But I said no. I had to work that night. I told her if my ankles had not gone down by the morning, then I would go to the hospital.
I went to work. Nothing horrible happened to me. But the swelling in my feet did not diminish.
The next morning we were in the hospital. I was declared an emergency case and placed immediately admitted to the hospital. The next several days were filled with tests and more tests.
The scariest part
First, they had to find out what was wrong with me. Then once they did find out, they had to do even more tests to discover how bad my situation was. It was bad.
To be able to fully tell how dire my situation was, the cardiologist said he would have to perform a cardiac catheterization. In layman’s terms, they were going to make a small incision in my leg, then feed a tube up a vein or artery until the end of the tube reached my heart. At the end of the tube was a miniature camera; it would allow the doctor to actually look inside my heart to see what was going on.
And, get this, I would be awake during the whole ordeal and would be able to see what the doctor saw on a video next to my bed.
Sounds scary, right? It was. The doctor let me go home for one day before performing the cardiac catheterization (also called a heart cath), and my 80-year-old neighbor just laughed at me when I told him. “I’ve had 7 or 8 heart caths,” he said. “No big deal.”
But it seemed like a big deal to me then.
The day of the heart cath
The actual cardiac catheterization took about 40 minutes. I spent much more time than that waiting in the prep area and afterward in the waiting bedroom.
They drugged me up pretty good during the actual cath, but not so much I didn’t know what was going on. I felt groggy and my vision was a little blurry around the edges, but I was fully conscious. And yes, there was a video screen right next to my bed where I could watch that tiny camera travel around through my body and into my heart. The inside of my heart looked like a bunch of gigantic caves with rounded edges, all in black and white.
During my heart cath, the nurses would chat with me a little, and every once in a while the cardiologist would say something like, “That’s interesting,” or “That’s surprising.” And, of course, he didn’t take the time during the moment to explain to me what he meant by his words. That made it a little more scary.
But overall, while by no means a pleasant process, the heart cath wasn’t nearly as bad as it had sounded. The closest I can compare it to, physically, would be like going to the dentist for some semi-major work, maybe getting a tooth filled.
I was a little sore afterwards, and it hurt to walk for a few days because of the incision in my leg, but overall, yeah, the heart cath wasn’t as bad as I had though.
I had to go on lots of pills. Still take some of them almost five years later. I had to go on disability from work for four months, and even when I went back full time it was under conditions I’d not work more than 40 hours a week. I had to walk everyday, and I still do (my beagle loves her daily walks). I had to watch what I ate, as can be expected. And, of course, I had to lose weight.
A year later, I was taken off the list for a donated heart. The doctor said my recovery was one of the best he had ever seen. He didn’t think I’d be able to keep my heart, but I did.
There were, however, some surprises in all this. While my situation had been dire, it was a bit different from most cardiac patients.
For one, and most surprising, I had no blockages in my heart. “You have some of the cleanest arteries I’ve ever seen in a patient,” were the doctor’s words. Sound weird? It did to me, but the more I learned about the heart and my specific problems, the more I learned that blockages (what commonly cause heart attacks) are not the only major problems that can be associated with the heart.
I suffered from an enlarged heart. Part of that was heredity, my father has an enlarged heart also, but some of it was the bad treatment I had given my heart over the years.
Another surprise was the changes in my diet. It wasn’t what I’d expected, though as I said above, my heart problems were not the more common ones. Yes, I had to severely restrict my diet for a long time (and still do, though to a lesser extent), but it wasn’t the calories and fat grams that I really had to watch for. It was the sodium. Salt. Another big surprise here was that I never considered myself a salt person. I don’t add salt to anything, not even french fries. But at the time I wasn’t as aware that sodium in large quantities was added to fast foods and to pre-prepared meals, mainly the stuff I’d been eating for years. So, I had to watch my sodium.
And I had to watch how much fluid I drink every day. You always hear that a person is supposed to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Not me. At least not when I was right out of the hospital. The real problem withmy heart, and what had caused my breathing problems, was that so much fluid was building around my heart that is was putting pressure on my lungs and making it hard for me to breath.
You live and learn. The opposite option isn’t very attractive.
So, it’s about 5 years later. I’m still alive. Still have my original heart. I’ve an a couple of episodes, mostly due to hot weather I’m not supposed to be out in if I can help it, but overall I’m doing pretty good. I still watch what I eat, though not as drastically as a few years ago. I walk every day. I try to get exercise without hurting myself. I’ve lost a good bit of weight, about 70 pounds, though there’s still more I’d like to lose.
I’m alive, and I’m relatively healthy. That’s all I can ask for right now.