The Day My Life Changed Forever

Now, before I go into the details of the day, I have to preface this post by saying that I don’t want people to pity me, or assume that from the title of this posting that this was the worst day in my life. In fact, in many respects it was one of the best days of my life, because my life was improved on so many levels on that day (I’ll get into all of that later, but its amazing how an event like this can alter perspective of so many things in life). After reading my last post, many people reached out to me out of concern, which I greatly appreciate, but please understand that the Doctors tell me that my heart is healthier than ever and I am expected to lead a normal, long and healthy life.

Now, back to the story. When I arrived at the ER on November 30th, I was still in panic mode and thought that they would rush me right back and begin figuring out what was going on. The Doctor that told me to get to the ER immediately had called ahead, and they “knew” I was coming and at serious risk. Much to my surprise, when I checked into the ER they said that they were unaware and to please take a seat in the waiting room…”WHAT!?! Are you kidding me!?!” I thought. So, I was sitting in the waiting room, trying to control my thoughts so that they didn’t stray to the worst possible scenario. After what seemed like forever (but was really only about 20 minutes), they brought me back.

After the ER Doctor asked me a few initial questions, they immediately began testing my blood pressure and oxygen levels, hooked me up to an EKG to monitor my heart constantly, hooked me up to an IV for fluids, and took more blood. The purpose of them taking more blood was to recheck my Troponin levels to see if the first test was just a fluke. So, I laid in the ER waiting the next 2.5 hours for the test results to come back from the lab. During those 2.5 hours, a number of things occurred. First, I was of course communicating with my wife to let her know what was going on (even though I really had no clue what was going on). She arranged for my brother and his wife to come over and stay at our house that night, so that she could come be with me. While she was on her way, a number of Doctors came to see me, including one of the cardiologists that was there at the time. It’s probably also important to note at this point that the hospital that I was at has a very good cardiology unit (not all hospitals have any cardiologists and it just so happens that my hospital has a full cardiology unit with amazing Doctors and staff). Many doctors and the cardiologist ask me a lot of the same questions: When did this begin? How did this begin? Does it happen all the time, or just during exercise? Do you have any pain now? Do you smoke? Are you active and otherwise healthy? Do you, or have you in the past done cocaine? So I gave them all the same answers, it started a few weeks ago, it only happens when I exercise, I don’t have any pain right now, I don’t smoke, I consider myself to be pretty healthy eating and exercising regularly (it’s hard not to be healthy living in Boulder, CO), and no I have not done cocaine recently or ever in the past. You would be amazed how many times I have been asked the cocaine question. I later asked my cardiologist why I was asked that so many times, and the answer is that cocaine can apparently be a trigger for heart issues in patients who otherwise have minimal risk factors. During that time, they also took chest x-rays, which yielded no concerns.

So, many Doctors are periodically coming in and out to check on me during those 2.5 hours. The ER doctors and the cardiologist were incredibly calm the whole time, which I am grateful for, because it helped me stay calm. It seemed that every doctor that saw me was searching for a reason for my Troponin levels to be elevated, but through all of the tests and questions that they had asked me, it wasn’t leading them to believe that there was anything wrong with my heart. At one point, one of the doctors even told me that it was looking like a false alarm and I would likely be released in a few hours. Multiple doctors also told me that if there was anything imminent going on that I would have long ago been rushed to the cardiology unit for a procedure. That all made me feel pretty good at the time.

Then my wife arrived. If you’re married and have a great relationship with your husband/wife, you will understand when I say that there was NOTHING more comforting than seeing her walk through the door that night.  I could see the concern on her face, but my wife is incredibly strong, and she wasn’t crying or anything. We just sat there, holding hands and talking, waiting for the next doctor to come in. I told her how worried and scared I was, mostly about what this might mean for her and our kids. I know she was thinking the same thing, but she just kept telling me that everything was going to be fine.

Finally, the lab results came back! My Troponin levels were still elevated, but had come down a little bit. Once again, this led me to think that maybe things were getting better and it was just a fluke that my Troponin levels were high to begin. Surely they would continue to come down, and I would be released soon…right!?! Wrong. The cardiologist told me that they would be moving me from the ER to the cardiology unit. She explained that they would continue to monitor me overnight, and take another blood sample in a few hours to see where my Troponin levels went. She also told me that they would likely do a stress test in the morning. It took a while for them to get a room prepared for me in cardiology, and during that wait my wife and I decided that it would be best for her to go home so that she was there for the kids when they woke up, and to get them to school. We knew that our kids were too young to understand what was going on, so we made the decision to try to keep things as normal as possible for them through my hospital stay (said another way, we didn’t want to freak them out). So, my wife left, and I was wheeled up to my plush room in cardiology (our hospital is fairly new, and very nice).

As you can probably imagine, I didn’t sleep a whole lot that night. Nurses were in every hour to check my blood pressure and vitals, but more so that night was a time for reflection for me as I laid there alone. I spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting about the past, but mostly praying and thinking about the future and the things that I would change in my life as a result of this “scare.” And I say “scare” in quotes, because at this point the doctors were still saying that they didn’t see anything of major concern. I was trying to treat it as just a scare, but still knew that it could be something more (because let’s be honest, they didn’t give me my own room in cardiology just because they were bored that night).  There are too many thoughts from that night to go through here, but I thought of everything that you would imagine: my kids, my wife, my parents, my siblings, my friends, my diet, my work, my kids, my wife, my kids, my kids, my kids!

The sun began to rise that morning, and my wife came back to the hospital after she got the kids off to school (I could write for days how incredible my wife was during this entire process, but I’ll leave that for another posting). Then I got to meet who is now my cardiologist (and another one of my heroes). I won’t mention her name here, so I’ll just refer to her as Dr. W. She came into my room, introduced herself to me, asked many of the same questions as everyone else, but then she started to talk a little different than any of the other doctors that had seen me. She said that she would not have me do a stress test, because if my Troponin levels were elevated there was clearly something going on, and a stress test could potentially put me into a full blown cardiac event (aka heart attack). She still didn’t think that anything major was going on, but she didn’t think it was worth taking any chances. Dr. W ordered an ultrasound of my heart for that morning, and said that her recommendation was that I get a heart catheter procedure that afternoon. I trusted Dr. W from the moment I met her, so I told her I would do whatever she thought was best. The ultrasound technician came in later that morning, and looked at my heart just like you would look at a baby in the womb. He was great explaining to my wife and I as he looked at all of the pieces and parts of my heart. He said that everything looked very healthy with my heart from the ultrasound!

So let’s recap just for a second. At this point, I have had countless doctors, nurses and multiple cardiologists monitoring me constantly, doing lab work, performing EKG tests constantly, chest x-rays and a heart ultrasound….and none of this led ANYONE to believe that there was anything serious going on with my heart. 

Dr. W came back into the room, and spoke with my wife and I. She stated that she didn’t think that they would find anything major based on all of the previous tests, but that she still wanted to perform the catheter procedure, because there was likely something minor going on that was causing the Troponin levels to be elevated. She needed to actually look into my heart to see what was going on. I was a little bit nervous to have the catheter go into my heart, but again I trusted Dr. W and she assured me that this is a very routine procedure. She explained to me what the procedure was, and what the potential outcomes were: they could find nothing, they could find something minor like a partial blockage, they could find more serious blockage requiring a stent, or they could find serious blockage requiring bypass surgery. Of course it is a surgical procedure where they are putting a catheter into your heart, so there is always a slight chance of the worst happening (but I tried to ignore that thought). With little hesitation, my wife and I agreed that it was the right next step, so Dr. W scheduled the catheter procedure for later that afternoon.

There were a few hours before the procedure would be done. My amazing wife made sure that my parents and siblings were all notified and up to speed on what was going on. I am the youngest of 6 children in a very close family, so it is no small task to keep everyone informed, but my wife did it incredibly well, all while also coordinating everything for our kids and all while keeping herself composed and making me feel at peace with everything going on. Shortly before the procedure, my brother Nate came to the hospital to be with me and my wife. I was taken down to the prep area, and Nate and my wife came with me to that room. I was given some medication to make me relax. My wife and brother had to leave the room for my final prep. Once again, I was left to tell my wife how much I loved her and the kids, not knowing exactly what might be to come. My wedding ring couldn’t be on during the procedure, so my wife wore it the entire time. She once again assured me that everything would be fine, and that she would see me soon.

Pardon the rest of this post as it may become a bit spotty (the meds did the trick is what I’m trying to say. I was very specific in telling the doctors that I did not want to remember the procedure, and they assured me that while I would be conscious, they would give me the proper meds to ensure that I wouldn’t remember the procedure).  I was taken back to the Cath Lab. It was December 1st, and I remember laying on the procedure table and all of the doctors and assistants were arguing (playfully) about whether or not to listen to Christmas music during my procedure. They let me make the call, and I gave the thumbs up for Christmas music. They put the gas mask on me, and then I went happily into lala land. I was conscious, but never felt a thing and had no clue what was going on during my time in the Cath Lab. In fact, I’m not even sure at what point I came back to being aware of my surroundings. I think that it was when I was finally taken back to my private recovery room. Much to my surprise and delight, my oldest brother Dave was also now there with me!  At some point between leaving the Cath Lab after the procedure and being in my recovery room, I learned the extremely surprising news….I had 99% blockage in my Left Anterior Descending Artery (aka The Widow Maker). My amazing doctors were able to successfully put a stent in to fix it! I was still really drugged up at the time, but just remember being shocked and grateful for being alive. The roller coaster of thinking something was wrong, to thinking nothing was wrong, to thinking something was wrong and back and forth so many times over those 18 or so hours had finally come to an end! Yes, something was SERIOUSLY wrong with my heart, but it was fixed and I was alive!

That evening, another brother of mine, Pete also came to be with us. So now, I was recovering from a life saving procedure at 33 years old, surrounded by my wife and three of my brothers. Hot Damn is it good to have an incredible family and an absolutely amazing wife!!! You want to talk about a flood of emotions?? Going into the procedure I thought that they would find little to nothing wrong with me, but still fearing the worst in the back of my mind. I woke up to learn that I was on the cusp of having a major (and potentially deadly) heart attack at any moment. The doctors were shocked by what they found, I was shocked, my family was shocked. To this day, nobody has an explanation of why I had the blockage.

I’ll speak more to this in future posts, but heart disease effects more than 75 Million Americans. I believe that there is a misconception about heart disease that it effects only the elderly or specific groups of people, but let this be a lesson that heart disease does not discriminate. Don’t be afraid of it, but respect that it is the leading cause of death in America, and don’t be afraid to see a doctor if you suspect anything!

The days and weeks following my procedure would be extremely challenging days for me mentally. I will write about that in one of my next postings, titled “Mark, You Can be Cautious, but You Can’t Stop Living!” 

“Dream as if You’ll Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today!” Pre_Post Stent

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From Exercise Room to Emergency Room

My story begins in Las Vegas, in October 2015. I was in Vegas for my company’s annual sales conference. In an attempt to not gain 10 pounds that week from eating unhealthy conference food and drinking a few beers each night, I decided that I would commit to getting up each morning at 5am to exercise. I stuck to my commitment, and exercised on a treadmill and stair stepper each morning alongside one of my all time favorite sales managers… (As a brief history of myself, I would consider myself a fairly active and healthy individual. I have played many sports in my life, and played soccer at a fairly high level through college. Beyond college, I continued to play hockey and soccer, I mountain bike, run regularly, lift weights and on and on)….but during those days in Las Vegas, something didn’t feel quite right. I had a little bit of a pain in the center of my chest when I was running on the treadmill. I dismissed the feeling at the time, thinking that it was likely from eating that yummy conference food, or drinking soda which I don’t often do, or from getting less sleep being away from my wife and kids. Whatever it was, I chalked it up as nothing to worry about, in fact I even told my boss who was alongside me but said it was no big deal. I finished the sales conference, and flew home to Colorado.

Over the next few weeks, I ran many times and experienced the same feeling in my chest. It wasn’t intense pain, but felt very similar to acid reflux or “heartburn.” I remember one day I was out for my typical 5 mile run, and actually stopped and began walking. When I got home that day, I figured it was time to call the Dr and see about getting this reflux feeling fixed so that I could get back to running. I called my primary care doctor and scheduled a routine physical (I didn’t assume anything major, so thought that I would have her check on that but might as well get a full physical at the same time). My appointment was scheduled for 2 weeks later, Monday November 30th. On November 29th, I played racquetball with with of my best friends. This time, the pain in my chest was a bit more intense and we had to take short breaks for it to subside (looking back this was one of the dumbest things that I have ever done was to keep playing). It still just felt like intense acid reflux or the feeling that you often can get from running outside when its cold. We finished the game with no issues and went home. I was glad that tomorrow I was finally going to get some medication to fix this reflux feeling.

It’s physical day! When I walked into my doctors office, her nurse asked me why I was there. I told her that I was having some chest pain when I would work out, but thought that I would just get a full physical while I was at it. She informed me that the doctor couldn’t perform a full physical since I was experiencing chest pain, and she asked me why I scheduled a physical and didn’t tell them when making the appointment that I was having chest pain. I simply said that I didn’t think it was a big deal, so just thought I would bring it up during my physical (looking back, this was another really dumb mistake…I’ll call it a lesson learned and hope that if you are reading this you don’t make the same mistake if you are ever faced with a similar situation). The nurse left, and my doctor came into the room. She asked me her regular doctor visit questions and then asked about the chest pains that I was having, when, how often, what triggered them, etc. Because I was only having them during intense exercise, she too thought that it was likely acid reflux. But, because I have an amazing doctor, she said, “Just to be safe, I’m going to have you go get blood work done and an EKG.” I will forever be indebted to my primary care physician for following procedure and not just going with her instinct that it was most likely acid reflux. This decision likely saved my life! I went down to the lab, got my blood drawn and EKG completed and went home. I called my wife and told her that it was just reflux, but they were doing some tests just to be 100% certain.

I finished work that day, went and picked the kids up from school as usual, and my wife got home from work. We went through our normal family routine of dinner, dance music and playing with the kids, and putting the kids to bed. My wife went to bed early around 8:30, and I stayed up and watched some senseless TV. Around 9:30 that night (same night as my physcial appointment and blood work), my phone rang. On the other end was the on call Dr (my Dr was gone for the evening). The on call Dr was very short and to the point with me, she said “Mark, your blood work has come back with elevated levels of Troponin. You need to take aspirin immediately, and get to the emergency room right away.” I was COMPLETELY caught off guard, and immediately went into panic mode. I asked the Dr a couple of questions (I can’t even remember what I asked), but I do remember her saying “Mark, you just need to get the the ER right away, there is a potentially serious issue with your heart.” My first thought was honestly, HOLY SHIT, AM I ABOUT TO DIE??? My second and simultaneous thought was my wife and kids. I went back to our bedroom, woke up my wife and told her the news. The kids were sound asleep up in their rooms. We decided that I would drive myself to the hospital, because my wife had to stay with the kids. My wife stayed calm, and tried to keep me calm as I gathered up my keys, wallet and jacket and prepared to leave as fast as possible to follow the demand from the Dr to get to the ER immediately. Then, reality sank in. I hugged my wife like I have never hugged her before, told her I loved her like never before, and she again assured me that everything was going to be ok. Then came the hardest part of my life to date, kissing my babies goodbye. As I walked up to my kids bedrooms a millions things were racing through my mind, but one thing kept coming up…was I about to kiss my 3 year old boy and 5 year old daughter for the very last time? As usual, they were both as peaceful and cute as can be when I went to kiss them goodbye. I told my son how proud of him I already was for who he had become in just 3 short years on this Earth. I told him to be strong no matter what happened, and to take care of Mom and Sis as the man of the house should anything happen to me. I kissed him on the forehead and lips and just stared at him for a few moments. Next I went to my daughter’s room. I told her how proud of her I was for the smart, funny and beautiful girl that she had become. I told her how much I loved her, and that I would always love her. I kissed her and rubbed her arm gently so that I didn’t wake her. I remember just crying as I said goodbye to them, not knowing what was happening or what was to come. I went back downstairs and hugged and kissed my wife one more time before leaving for the ER. It was the most gut wrenching moment of my life kissing my wife and kids goodbye that night, and something that I will never forget.

As I drove to the ER (about 20 minutes from home), I was primarily focused on trying to keep myself calm because I thought that if I worked myself up I might have a heart attack. I listened to some country music, took deep breaths, and made it to the hospital. They checked me in, took me back and began doing more tests and monitoring that night. In my next blog post, I will describe the events, thoughts, feelings, tests, etc that went on in the ER and ultimately in the cardiac emergency department of the hospital. My next blog post will be titled, “The Day My Life Changed Forever.”

I promise that all of my posts won’t be this long, all about me, or sappy. I just want to set the stage and let everyone know my story and why this is so meaningful to me. I hope to provide insight and inspiration to others who may face this situation themselves one day. I hope to provide learning lessons from my experiences, healthy diet and exercise tips, and pass on education that I learn about preventing heart disease. I hope to connect with other young adults and young parents who are living with heart disease. And finally, I want my family and friends to understand my story, thoughts and feelings about living with heart disease.

I will leave you today, as I will every day, with my favorite quote:
“Dream as if You Will Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today!”

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My Beautiful Family!