Post Cardiac Event Travel

One of the biggest uncertainties for me after having a cardiac event at the age of 33 was the thought of getting back to work, and even more daunting was the thought of getting back to traveling for work (or pleasure for that matter). I live in Colorado, and my career in technology sales requires me to travel all over the country. I was fortunate enough to take a few weeks off after my cardiac event, but getting back to work meant getting back to travel fairly immediately as well. My purpose of this blog is to share some of my experiences and thoughts on how to successfully get back to traveling after having a cardiac event. Whether for business or pleasure, most people will likely face similar uncertain thoughts as they approach travel for the first time or two after a cardiac event.

Preparation, like most things in life, is critical to traveling after a cardiac event. The more prepared you are, the more likely you are to have a successful and stress free trip. The first time that I had to travel after my cardiac event, I knew that I was going to have some anxiety, so I began preparing for that trip much earlier than normal. I believe that I was traveling on a Wednesday, and my preparation began on that Monday (normally I would have packed and prepared the night before or the day of my travel depending on my flight time). My first action was to make a list. I would highly suggest this to anyone, because your mind will undoubtedly be going in many different directions. My list included the usual items like pants, shirts, underwear, socks, toiletries, etc. But, beyond the regular items, there were suddenly much more important things to remember than matching clothes. I now had added to my list my medications, clothes to exercise in each day, heart healthy snacks/food, and a list of my medical information (I would suggest taking a copy of your discharge paperwork from your hospital or cardiologist). Making a detailed list will ensure that you don’t forget something important to your health, as well as the not so important items. A quick funny story. After my first few trips post cardiac event, I felt that I could go without a list. While I certainly didn’t forget any of the critical health items, what I did forget were both my undershirts and ties for work. The old me would have been upset that I had forgot those items, but now it was something that I just laughed off and went on with my business.

As for the actual travel, I again would highly suggest allowing for ample extra time. Being rushed often makes us stressed, and stress is something that we can likely all agree is a good thing to avoid post cardiac events. For me, getting to the airport early so that I am not rushed is important to reducing stress. If flying or travel is something that stresses you out in general, I would also suggest talking with your primary care physician or cardiologist prior to travel. They may be able to make suggestions, or provide medical help to reduce/relieve that stress or anxiety.

Rather than going into detail about my personal travel stories, here is a list of “lessons learned” after my first few trips post-cardiac event:

  • Pack items for the plane that will occupy your mind (so that you don’t sit and dwell on your health thoughts for the duration of the flight). I find that a good book is best, but I also always have calming music and my tablet with a couple of good movies loaded.
  • If you plan on dining at the airport, do your homework to find a real restaurant with heart healthy options. Skip the quick and easy cheeseburger. Again, plan for extra time. Most airports have sit down restaurants with plenty of heart healthy options, but they do require planning extra time in your schedule.
  • Pack exercise clothes. We all know that physical exercise is critical to our heart health. I always pack exercise clothes for each day of my trip, and I commit to exercising each day away. This helps reduce stress, and of course helps heart health.
  • Pack healthy snacks. Skip the high sodium peanuts or chips on the airplane and hotels, and pack your own heart healthy snacks. It can be difficult (or just inconvenient) to try and find healthy snacks, so pack some from home. For me, I like raw nuts, carrots and organic fig bars.
  • When packing my medications, I have begun packing three additional days worth. I do this just in case I get stuck somewhere due to a cancelled flight, etc.
  • Prior to traveling for the first time, I talked with both my primary care physician as well as my cardiologist to make sure that they didn’t have any concerns. Beyond just asking them if its ok to travel, I also reviewed with them things that were in my toiletry bag. For example, I use Zyrtec for allergy medicine and Tylenol as a pain reducer. I asked to make sure that none of what I “used” to take would interfere with my heart medications.
  • Make sure you have a list of your medications, dosages, contact numbers for your PCP, cardiologist and pharmacy. Again, these are all just precautions, but good to have in the rare case that you may need them.
  • Don’t fear travel. I have quickly learned that traveling is really no different for me now than before, with the exception that I better prepare and allow for more time.
  • Lastly, ENJOY YOUR TRIP!! Whether for business or pleasure, I have found that I am much more appreciative of travel now. If you’re traveling for vacation, make it as stress free and relaxing as possible. Nothing is better for the heart (in my non-medical opinion) than pure relaxation and fun.

I would love to hear what tips others have as they have began traveling again.

Until next time, “Dream as if You’ll Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today!”

Caption (photo below): My awesome kids during our first family vacation
after my surgery. Nothing better than playing on the beach with them,
holding my wife’s hand as we walked down the shore, relaxing and
just plain enjoying life!!

kids beach

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Exercise: My Physical, Mental & Emotional Therapy

12k – 7.5 Miles – 52:45 – 7:05 Minutes per Mile – 2nd place in my age division – 3rd place male overall

If someone had told me a few months ago that almost exactly 6 months to the day after having a stent put into one of my main heart arteries that I would have run the Taste of Louisville 12k and come in 3rd place overall, I would have been mad at that person for even suggesting something so crazy. Well, a few days ago, that is exactly what I accomplished. 

As  I was recovering from my procedure in the hospital, all of the doctors and nurses stressed the importance of two things to prevent future issues: Diet and Exercise. How many times have we heard those words preached throughout our life?? While it is so obvious that eating healthy and exercising is critical to our long term health, so many of us find ourselves ignoring these simple truths. For me, unfortunately it took me coming close to death to truly put Diet and Exercise at the front of the line when it comes to priorities and how I live my life. If you had asked me prior to learning that I had a heart issue, I would have said that I felt that I ate fairly healthy and exercised quite regularly. Looking back, I was feeding my body a lot of toxins and processed foods, and only exercising about 50% of what I should have been. I don’t ever intend to preach to anyone in this blog, but if you’re reading this, I would strongly urge you to consider taking the words Diet and Exercise very seriously. I will focus on Diet in another blog, but today I want to talk about how exercise has so positively effected me mentally, physically and emotionally.

My primary care doctor (who is also a health coach) has told my wife and I for years that weight control is 80% diet and 20% exercise, but that both are equally as important to leading a healthy & happy life (Again, some advice that I wished I had heeded the first time I heard her say this to me years ago). As I have noted in previous posts, the days immediately following my procedure were filled with dark, scary, uncertain and unsettling thoughts. I wasn’t sure how (or if) I was going to get back to the normal life that I was previously living. Simply put, I felt fragile. Thank goodness that I live in what is often considered the most healthy city in America, and my doctors were insistent that I should begin cardiac rehab immediately after being discharged. Cardiac rehab is about getting you back to feeling comfortable with the idea of exercising again. It is where you go to regain your confidence in your ability to walk/run/lift weights/etc as you recover from a heart incident or procedure. You are in the presence of cardiac nurses, with heart and oxygen monitors attached to your body to track your every step. I can honestly say that without cardiac rehab, I may be sitting here 6 months after my procedure still feeling scared to get up and walk. But instead, I am sitting here writing about how I am in the best shape of my life. I read stories about heart patients all the time that are afraid or embarrassed to go to their cardiac rehab appointments. If you’re reading this and in that situation, please go. Cardiac rehab got me back to running confidently at the pace and distance that I was previous to my procedure. As much, if not more importantly, getting back to exercising allowed me to get back to life mentally and emotionally.

Physically, I’m doing great! I am in the best shape of my adult life right now, and I will continue to get even better, faster, stronger. I find at least one hour every day to dedicate to exercise. In my opinion, there is no more important investment that a person can make in themselves than investing in your health. As grave as it is to say, without it, there is nothing. The best part about the physical fitness (aside from looking in the mirror and seeing the results), is the direct correlation and effect it has had on my emotional and mental well being. I am now a profound believer that physical, mental and emotional health are 100% connected. From a mental perspective, exercise has meant everything to my physical recovery and state of mind. I think that the best example that I can give is that after my procedure, any tiny feeling/pain I would have in my body led me to believe that something may be wrong. It could have been something as simple as my foot falling asleep, or a muscle twitching in my arm or leg, or a minor headache. The power of exercise on shifting that mental concern is that if I go for a 4 or 5 mile run and feel great, than when I have a minor feeling in my body I don’t have any reason to believe that it is a cause for concern. As my cardiologist puts it, by me exercising at a high level every day, I am putting my body through the equivalent of a stress test every day. Finally, from an emotional standpoint, exercise has really helped me contain and maintain my emotions. Prior to my increase in exercise, I would often let my emotions get the best of me. Whether it was getting overly stressed about something at work, or getting upset with my kids over something silly, I did not have a good handle on my emotions. Now, I am able to keep calm much better and maintain a more level emotional state (not that I’m perfect with this, but it is much better).

Finally, the last thing that I will say about exercise is that you don’t have to be in it alone. For me, there have been many friends, neighbors and family that I have reached out to when I want to go for a walk, run, bike ride, golfing, etc etc. I am very fortunate to have had many many very good friends and family help me through my journey to this point. When it comes to exercise there are two special people that have been there for and/or with me every step of the way. First is my wife. I’ve ranted and raved in other posts about how incredible she has been, and exercise is no exception to that. Whether it is encouraging me to go for a run, running together (on those rare occassions that we are together without the kids), playing with the kids more outside as a family, buying me new athletic gear, telling me how great I’m doing, and on and on, she has been nothing but encouraging and supportive of my exercising needs and desires. Second, is my friend Wes. Everyone knows that saying that you will find out who your true friends are when adversity strikes. Well, I have had a lot of friends live up to this saying throughout my little journey these past 6 months for which I’m extremely grateful, but when it comes to exercise my man Wes has been the best friend I could ask for. From going for walks with me shortly after the procedure, to running 8 miles together at 5am on many occassions, to sending me encouraging text messages after a good workout, Wes has truly been there for me. If you find yourself in a position where you can be someone’s Wes or what my wife been for me, do your best to encourage that person. I may never be able to fully and accurately express it in words, but that support has meant absolutely everything to me and being where I am today.

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

Taste of Louis

 

 

6 Months!!!

Today, 6/1/2016, marks 6 months since I had my stent placed on 12/1/2015. I went for the run below this morning and ran 4.17 miles at a 7:10 minute pace. I’m in the best shape I’ve been since probably high school. I’m running a 12k this Saturday. More to come after that race on how exercise has helped me physically, mentally and emotionally…

Until then my friends, “Dream as if You’ll Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today!”

6_1_2016 Run

The Aftermath

First, my apologies for the length between my last blog and this one…I’ve been busy enjoying life! Since my last posting, my son turned 4, I turned 34, my wife and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary and we went to Siesta Key with the kids for a week.

What I’m going to write about in this blog is the immediate aftermath of my procedure. This may be boring to some, but I hope that others who are currently going through something similar now or in the future will find it helpful.

If you have ever had any type of surgery where they sedated you, you know how it feels to “wake up” but still being in a daze. I don’t know exactly what anesthetics they gave me for my procedure, but whatever it was made my mind fuzzy for a while. I know this, because as I think back and try to recall some of the moments immediately after, I have a hard time putting the pieces of the puzzle in the correct order. To help with that, my wife proofreads these posts to keep me honest. Anyway, the first thing that I remember feeling as I came out of the fog was a bit of disbelief. If you recall from previous posts, before going into the catheter procedure, the Drs told me that they didn’t believe that they were going to find anything major. So, to be told as I’m coming out of the fog that I had a stent put in my heart to fix a 99% blockage in one of my main arteries was a bit of a shock, to say the least. The disbelief quickly merged into a complicated mix of fear, uncertainty, anger and gratitude.

Once the fog had lifted, and I was laying in the hospital bed recovering, I began to think about what this all meant. The realization that I had heart disease began to kick in, and that was a very scary realization at first. All of the fear and emotions that I felt were centered around my wife and kids. All of the thoughts and questions that you think would go through your mind in a moment like that, did for me. I laid there wondering if I was going to be able to see my kids grow up. See my son play sports, graduate from high school, go to college, have a family. See my daughter continue to beat boys in sports, protect her from bad boys, high school, college, and finally walk her down the aisle (this still gets me to this day every time I think about it). And my wife, my amazing wife Abbie, I just kept thinking about how much we still have to conquer together. And was I going to be leaving my wife with this incredibly difficult task of raising our kids on her own and explaining to them some day what happened to Daddy. My wife lost her mother at an early age, and I just kept feeling angry at myself, because I felt like I was about to put my wife through the same thing all over again, only this time as a parent. So many scary thoughts went through my mind, and it was very difficult to avoid them.

On the flip side, doctors and nurses would come in to check on me constantly, and they would all be in great spirits and talk about how well the procedure went. Nobody could explain why I had the blockage, but they all told me that it was fixed. I asked a number of doctors what this meant for me going forward, and they all told me that my heart is likely healthier than its been in a long time (or maybe ever) and that I should expect to lead a long, happy and healthy life. When I would think about my procedure from this perspective, I would be overwhelmed with gratitude. Grateful that I had such a great team of doctors. Grateful that I listened to my body and went to the doctor when I had chest pains, which likely avoided me from having a massive heart attack running on a trail in the middle of nowhere someday. Grateful that my wife was sitting next to me as I recovered instead of saying goodbye to me. Grateful that my heart was fixed! I was grateful for many things, but in the moment it was hard to latch on to the positive. I found myself focused on the negative and uncertainty.

I think that one of my doctors said it best when she said, “Mark, you just stared your own mortality square in the eyes at the age of 33, it’s normal to feel scared.”

If I could give advice to anyone going through a similar situation, I would simply tell them to do whatever they can to latch on to the positive. Don’t hide from the fear and uncertainty, those emotions are important and very real. But, its the positive thoughts that will carry you through the difficult times. I believe that feelings and emotions feed off of themselves, and it is much better to have a snowball of positive energy than negative when faced with adversity.

Looking back, it feels like I was in the hospital recovering for a week. In reality, my procedure was done on December 1st at 3:30pm, and I was discharged on the afternoon of December 2nd. For those who have kids, the feeling that I had when leaving the hospital was a bit like taking your first child home from the hospital. It’s that, “Oh Shit, what do I do now that I’m not surrounded by doctors” feeling. While I was emotionally all over the place while I was in the hospital, the one thing that I didn’t worry too much about was if something went wrong medically, because I was surrounded by an amazing team of cardiologists, nurses and other doctors. When I went home and was no longer on a heart monitor 24/7, surrounded by those doctors, everything changed for me. I was no longer just scared, I was damn near paralyzed by my mind.

The first few days at home were very difficult for me. All of those thoughts that were going through my mind while in the hospital continued, but were magnified by a thousand times as I lie in bed alone. On top of the emotional thoughts, I was now starting to worry about every tiny movement I made and every physical feeling that I had. I guess the easiest way to explain it was that I felt very fragile. I drank a ton of water, but wasn’t very interested in eating. I felt ok laying still in bed, but felt like I was going to pass out when I would try to get out of bed. I could temporarily keep my mind at ease watching tv, but when there was silence I would be overcome with anxiety and fear. These were constant themes for me for about the first week at home. It not only effected me, but began to effect my wife and children. When I realized that it began effecting my kids, that was when I finally made the conscious decision to snap out of it and try to get my life back to normal.

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself that Mark is a total wuss. It wasn’t that big of a deal, he just had a stent put in. A lot of people have that done every day. In a lot of respects, you may be right. But in this case, I believe that I was mostly scared due to my lack of knowledge and all of the uncertainty that came with just not knowing what this all meant. This is exactly why I’m writing this blog. Because I hope that the next 33 year old Daddy (or Mommy) and Husband (or Wife) that finds themselves in this situation will know that it isn’t all doom and gloom. I’ll write about this more in a future post, but I am less than 6 months removed from the procedure and I am doing amazing! I am working out and/or running 6+ days per week, I’m in the best shape I’ve been since college, and as a bonus my wife says I’m “hunky” now.

I won’t pretend that I don’t ever have negative thoughts or concerns still, but I have found ways to focus on the positives and feed off of that energy rather than the negative. More to come on this in future posts as well.

Until next time, “Dream as if You’ll Live Forever, Live as if You Only Have Today!”

family siesta key

Mark, You Can Be Cautious, But You Can’t Stop Living!

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.

 

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

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!