April 1st marked 4 months since the day that I had my heart procedure. On April 1st, I was snowboarding the back country of A-Basin with my brothers and friends, and hiking to the top of the mountain ( 13,000+ feet). The pictures at the end of this post are of me and my view during that ascent. As I’m writing this post on 4/4, I just got back from a 4 mile run. Since my heart procedure, I have run approx 150 miles, snowboarded multiple times, played golf, played disc golf, biked with my kids, played with my kids countless times, chopped down 5 trees, and many other physical activities. So what’s my point!?! Am I just trying to brag? Am I trying to prove something to you? No, not at all. My point is that while heart disease can drag you down and make you think that you may never be able to do the things that you once did, it can also have the opposite effect on you. This post will be about the lessons that I have learned, both pre-procedure and post-procedure. Probably the most important thing that anyone said to me after my procedure came from my brother Pete, when he visited me just a few days after coming home from the hospital. I was down in the dumps; scared, confused, worried, afraid to eat/walk/sleep. Pete said to me, “Mark, you can be cautious, but you can’t stop living.” While I didn’t fully appreciate what he was saying at the time, I have come to learn that it was probably the best advice that I could give to anyone going through a similar situation. So, my hope of this post is that as I list out the learning lessons through my experience, that they may help others now or in the future.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and don’t pretend to be one. These are merely my personal experiences and lessons learned from my perspective. I would strongly urge any and everyone to go to http://www.heart.org (American Heart Association website) to educate yourself on heart health.
Pre-Procedure Learning Lessons (in no particular order)
- Establish a good relationship with your primary care physician and get regular physicals (at least one per year). Ask your doctor what types of baseline tests you should have done, and how often. I got lucky in this sense. I had an EKG done for something unrelated about 5 years ago. When I had my recent heart issue and had new EKGs done, many many doctors looked at them and said they look normal. Only ONE doctor said otherwise, and that was my primary care physician (PCP), because she had my baseline result from 5 years ago that showed the most minor difference from the new EKG. This, along with my blood work ordered by my PCP, were likely life saving tests. I’m not a Dr, so ask yours, but I would recommend asking your doctor about getting baseline blood work and an EKG if you are an adult and don’t already have them on file.
- Listen to what your body is telling you! In today’s busy and fast-paced world, it is easy to ignore feelings in your body and “get to them when you have time.” If you have read my previous posts, you know that I went weeks with minor chest pains, and I continued to exercise very regularly. I scheduled a physical with my doctor for a few weeks later when it was convenient for me. Not to be over dramatic, but there were many times in those few weeks that I could have died. I should have listened to my body and gone in immediately.
- Be honest with yourself and with your Dr. As I just noted, I scheduled a physical when I was having chest pains during exercise….looking back this was so stupid of me! I shouldn’t have been scheduling a physical when I called my Dr, I should have told them that I was having chest pains when exercising and they wouldn’t have had me wait 3 weeks to come in. Again, I’m just extremely lucky that I made it through those 3 weeks. Remember, a doctor can only help you if you are honest and tell them everything you can about what you are feeling…don’t be shy or ashamed of sharing, it just may save your life!
- Treat your body and life with respect, you only get one chance! Everyone knows that they should exercise daily and eat healthy, but very few people do. Again, making the excuse that I’m too busy, I can’t break away from work, I don’t have the energy to, etc etc. I felt that I was fairly healthy pre-procedure. I exercised on average about 3 times per week, and ate what would be considered fairly healthy. However, it clearly wasn’t enough. Looking back, I thought that I was healthy, but made many poor decisions; I should have been exercising at least 5 days a week, I should have been much more aware of the processed foods & saturated fats that I was putting into my body regularly, and I probably shouldn’t have been drinking IPAs on an almost nightly basis (I haven’t had one since and haven’t even had the urge). I’ll leave my new heart healthy diet and lifestyle changes for another blog, but again if you want to learn more visit heart.org.
Post-Procedure Learning Lessons (in no particular order)
- The initial shock of waking up and learning that you have heart disease is extremely scary and unnerving (or at least it was for me). Again, I’m 33, with a beautiful wife and two toddlers. I was scared, shocked, confused, emotional, uncertain, anxious. Looking back, I was probably a bit overboard about everything, but it was just one of those things that I never expected and I just didn’t know what to think or feel. I guess my advice would be that it is ok (and maybe even good) to have that flood of feelings, thoughts and emotions. That initial shock made me think about a lot of things in my life. It brought perspective to so many aspects of life, and helped me understand what really matters. For instance, it’s no longer a big deal when my kids spill something. I don’t get mad if someone is driving a little slower in front of me than I would like. I make time for exercise & healthy eating, the world isn’t going to end if I take an hour break from work each day. Nothing is more important than spending time with my wife and kids. I could list a million different life perspectives that I have since realized.
- “Dream as if You’ll Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today.” My wife and I have had that quote hanging in our house for many years and I always liked it, but it never really hit home with me until I got home from the hospital and saw it hanging where it always has in our house. I’m not going to expand on this one, I think the quote says it all.
- Doctors and modern medicine are amazing, and we should all be grateful for both. I don’t know how else to say it, but I can’t thank my primary care doctor, the ER doctors that helped me, and my cardiology staff enough. They all saved my life. Find good doctors that you can trust and be open with. Many people have heard my story and have asked me to show them my scar. I point to a red dot on my wrist, about the size of the tip of a pencil. That is the only outward evidence on my body that I had 99% blockage in a major artery in my heart. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy that I am living and had this happen in 2016, and not 60 years ago. As one of the cardiologists said to me, “who knows, maybe they will have a pill for this kind of issue someday soon.”
- The first few weeks after the procedure were extremely difficult for me, both physically and mentally, especially mentally. The physical limitations were mostly driven by the mental. From a physical standpoint, I pretty much laid in bed for a week, only getting up to go to the bathroom and eat (albeit eating sparingly). From a mental standpoint, there are two words that can explain how I felt; scared and anxious. I was scared about what this meant for me, but mostly for my wife and kids. I was scared that I wasn’t going to be there for my kids. I was scared that I was leaving my wife with a very difficult life going forward. I was scared because I felt like I may not be “fixed.” And then there was the anxiety. Constantly worrying about every move I made. Not wanting to get out of bed. Not being able to sleep. Not wanting to see other people. WANTING to see and play with my kids, but being so anxious that I felt like I was going to pass out if I would get out of bed to hang out with them. Looking back, it was certainly fair for me to feel these things, but I could have done things to handle them better. First, there is medication for the anxiety that I was having. I should have asked for it long before I did (it works). There are many other things that help as well; yoga, meditation, therapy (to name a few).
- Cardiac Rehab is important. I know that I made it sound in that last bullet like I sulked in my bed for months on end. In reality, it was really only a week or two. Then, I had to get out of bed because I had to go to my first cardiac rehab appointment. Funny story…My parents came to town to be with me after the procedure, so my Dad came with me to my first rehab appointment. We sat down in this little room, and one of the nurses came in. She walked up to my Dad and said, “Hi Mark, let’s get started.” My Dad’s name is Jack, I’m Mark. She just assumed that it was the 73 year old there for cardiac rehab, not his 33 year old son. HA! We all had a good laugh. Anyway, regardless of your age, if you ever find yourself needing a heart procedure, I would highly recommend going to and sticking with cardiac rehab. They rebuilt my confidence to exercise in a matter of a couple weeks. I was running multiple 8-minute miles with no issues just a few short weeks after my procedure…and most of it was thanks to cardiac rehab.
- Family and Friends are so important. I am blessed to be from a big and very close immediate family, as well as extended family. I am also blessed to have some of the best friends anyone could ask for. My family and friends that were there for me, brought me and my family food, helped with my kids, helped my wife, etc will never probably know just how much it meant to me. I say this for anyone reading this. If you have a family member or friend going through tough times (be it medical or otherwise), lend them a hand in any way you can. It truly lifted my spirits to have so much love and support around me.
- “Mark, You Can Be Cautious, But Don’t Stop Living.” I mentioned this at the beginning of the post as maybe the most important learning lesson, and here’s why. That day that my brother Pete came to my house was in the middle of the time when I was afraid to get out of bed, full of anxiety and scared of just about everything. Pete must have been able to see and sense all of that from me, and I’m so glad that he said that to me. First and foremost, he was right. The doctors had told me that my heart was now healthier than ever, so there was really no reason to lay in bed all day. Second, there is no reason to lay in bed all day and fear life. But most importantly, my being so scared and laying in bed all day was having an enormous unintended consequence that I wasn’t aware of. It was effecting my daughter. My laying in bed all day and not doing all of my normal Daddy stuff, it made her feel that she was in a sense “losing” me. When my wife took her to the doctor thinking she was sick, and came home to tell me that the doctor said that she had anxiety due to what was going on at home, I felt terrible. I quickly made an adjustment to get back to living as quickly and normally as I could, and guess what, my daughter quickly got better too :). The statement that my brother made to me that day was important on many levels. It’s easy to sulk, but it feels so much better to get back out there and live life to its fullest (even if that means being a little more cautious at times).
- It’s a process. I am certainly not afraid to admit that I am still working on some of the mental aspects of all of this. I believe time heals all wounds, and I am somewhere in the middle of that process.
- Life is fragile. I know that people say it all the time, but it’s all true. Hug your wife, kids, loved ones like you mean it every day. You just never know.
Until next time….
“Dream as if You’ll Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today.”
4 Months to the day after my procedure (4/1/2016). Back country snowboarding at 13,000+ feet.