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!”