I did not almost die on Thursday, December 13, 2012.
I did, however, learn that it wasn't going to be much longer until I did.
Let me back up a bit. I'm 35 years old. I'm 5'10 and 180 pounds with a ridiculously long history of heart disease in my family. My grandmother, uncles, cousins, and countless others have all passed away before the age of 55 from heart attacks. So, in 2005 when I learned my father had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, I immediately got myself checked by a doctor.
She performed an
test (EKG) and told me that not only wasn't I at risk at the time, but I was in great health. Every doctor's appointment has gone the same way since. I've worn the same size pants since high school and, especially before my children were born, I walked everywhere and worked out 5 days a week. No problems. None.
I was Superman.
That's why I'm hesitant to call what happened to me last Thursday a "heart attack". You say that and people picture Fred Sanford flailing around holding one hand to his heart and the other to the sky. But in reality, what I experienced was no different than random aches and pains I've had for years. I'd have muscle pain in my torso and assume I lifted my kids up too much the day before. I'd have a tingle in my hand and figure that I need to stop drinking so much caffeine that day. Sometimes it was a few seconds. Sometimes it was a few minutes. Sometimes it was an hour, but the pains always went away.
They even went away Thursday.
The big difference was that my wife was home at the time and suggested I go next door to the emergency care center for an EKG. With my son sleeping in his crib, I had her there to help out, so why not? Although uncomfortable, it wasn't as if I was writhing around in pain so I agreed and actually walked to the emergency center.
After questioning me about the strain in my chest and tingling hands, the staff gave me the test. They all seemed upbeat and when the doctor looked at the printout, I was prepared for two aspirin, a kick in the ass, and a walk home. That's when she cheerfully said:
"OK James. It appears that you are having a heart attack. We've called the ambulance and are sending you to Good Samaritan Hospital..."
"Wait, what? Are you serious?"
"Yes, but don't worry. You're in good hands."
At this point, you probably think the story is over. Seems over. Looks over. Should be over. Isn't over. Remember I said that the pain always went away? Well, it did...in the ambulance.
By the time I got to Good Sam, I was fine. I was so fine, in fact, that my EKG once again reported that I was perfectly healthy. It was to the point where they were questioning what the emergency center had done wrong. They even ran the test twice. I asked if it was a genuine heart attack, but most people seemed to think there would be some - any - sign of it on the follow ups. They even sent a cardiologist who loudly whispered to me in broken English, "Come on. You tell me. Cocaine? You do some cocaine? Viagra? Little heroin? Is ok. You tell me."
What the first "heart attack" EKG was supposed to lead to was an angiogram. Look it up. It's not fun. But, it essentially lets doctors see your heart on a real time x-ray from a number of angles. After a while, I guess they figured something must have happened to cause the original test to come back the way it did - computer error or not. So, why waste the ambulance ride? Let's just do one on the guy, give him aspirin, kick him in the ass, and let him walk home.
They brought me into the testing room and, as I lied there in confused anticipation, I had the one highlight of the day. A friend from high school who, although we remained virtual friends via Facebook, had lost touch a while back, was one of my technicians. Joseph Brennan said he'd make sure I was taken care of and I knew that at least one person in the room knew I wasn't the type to cry about imaginary pain.
I was glad he was there.
As they began the test, I didn't get to see the screen with my heart on it. Rather, I stared at the ceiling tiles and just waited. What I did notice, however, was that everything had gotten quiet. The chatter had stopped and the mood was remarkably different than when I came in. Dr. Lee then shut down the scanner and turned to me.
"OK James, we went in and took a look at three of your arteries. We've found significant blockage in all three so I'm sending you for bypass surgery..."
My "wait, what" response was even stronger this time. He continued to explain that no one in the room expected to find what they did. Pointing to three leaf shaped objects on the image, he told me that the three should be tubes but had almost closed entirely - shutting off blood flow to those parts of the heart for God knows how long. That's when he looked at me and said something that stuck with me throughout this entire ordeal and will live with me forever.
"You ever read in the paper about the perfectly healthy guy who just drops dead of a heart attack at 40 out of the blue? That was going to be you."
I don't remember much about the next few minutes other than asking what could have caused this and being told it was my genes. When they rolled me back to the ambulance transport area, I got an idea of how little independence (something I value a great deal in my regular life) I would have for the next few days. In order to slide me from one stretcher to the other, the paramedics needed to slip a board under me. To be helpful, I put my hands upside down above my head and did a "Mr Perfect" Curt Hennig back bridge. Everybody gasped. I was instructed to stop doing things to help.
The medic at my head was three times my weight and about an inch taller than I am. The entire time he wheeled me, he panted and gasped in my ear. I couldn't figure out why this was happening. I used the term mind blowing about it because that's how it truly felt. I wish I could tell you there were some deep thoughts going on during my trip from Good Samaritan to St Francis Heart Hospital, but there weren't. Most went like this:
"I can't believe this. How the f**k is this happening? How is this real?"
Before the ambulance ride, we were told that the operation would most likely take place the next day. Based on this, I told my wife to run my car keys home to her parents, so that they have car seats for the kids. But when I got there, it was a different story. The staff swarmed me and started shaving, poking, and prodding. When I said, "So, we're doing this tomorrow?" The anesthesiologist grinned and said, "Tomorrow? Chief, you're going under in a half hour."
After a conversation with the shaving nurse about how she watched wrestling "back before it got so fake" (something I've been told by five different people during this past week), and a phone call with my amazing wife, they brought me in.
One of the only things I remember from that point on was remarking to a nurse how I wanted one of their blue shower caps, but my wife said she didn't think patients got one. She exclaimed, "Oh, you get a cap!" And plopped it on my head.
The very final memory I have was looking up as I was being stretchered into the operating room and seeing myself in one of those circle security mirrors they put in hallway corners. That was that.
When I eventually woke up, a tube was removed from my throat and my body felt like it had been hit by a truck. The operation, which I was told took about four hours, included stopping my heart and using veins from my leg to build a new tunnel for blood flow to it. I found out two days later, the new entry way had to bypass five of my heart's seven arteries. I hadn't had a triple or even a quadruple bypass - two operations that just sound frightening. No. I had a quintuple bypass - an operation I didn't even know existed.
Googling it afterwards only made things worse. Conflicting reports ranging from the tediousness of such surgery to how wonderful it is only left me with more questions. It wasn't until I learned that my bypass was the same that David Letterman had undergone in 2000, that I was able to find some peace. Letterman, like me, didn't fit the physical profile we usually associate with heart disease. And, 13 years later, he's still on the air every night. It inspired me and brought relief from a celebrity I never felt strongly about either way. But now, he's the example I point to, the name I share, and the example I strive to follow.
My recovery has been painful at times and will continue to be painful at times going forward. I'm ready for it, but I feel really good as I write this. The people who have taken care of me and been there for me have left me overwhelmed. My wife's parents and sister made my time away from home stress free knowing my children were in great hands while Jaimee was by my side. Close friends and the Insanity staff sent along well wishes and people I haven't spoken to in years reached out to see how I was. All of this combined to make an emotional journey even more so when I saw the support I had in my life.
On a side note, as a 35 year old, the best way to feel young is to have open heart surgery. I haven't had so many people remark on my youth as those in the past week. I've become the example of catch-it-early.
I guess this is where you expect me to push my lifestyle discoveries on you ... but I won't. I'm not going to tell you to eat right. I'm not going to suggest you exercise. Hell, I'm not even going to tell you to see your doctor. I did all those things before this happened (although I will do them stronger from this point forward). My situation was an alignment of stars. I managed to get checked at the exact right moment and end up exactly where I needed to be to save my life. Obviously you should do all those things but it's not for me to tell you how to live. I saw morbidly obese people waiting in the visitors lounge while fairly fit 60 year olds walk around in slipper socks. You're not going to change your lifestyle because I said so. You have to decide to do that yourself.
No. What I will say is this. After the operation, I thought a lot about the small annoyances in my life and the time I've been wasting bogging myself down with them. For someone who had so much to live for and so many loving people around me, I couldn't understand why so much time was spent sweating the so-called small stuff. I didn't miss the small stuff when I was being wheeled away. I didn't worry about strangers who didn't like my books on message boards or annoying posts people put on Facebook. I worried about seeing my family again. I worried about my son, daughter, and wife losing the chance to have me in their lives. I worried about missing out on the important moments that still haven't occurred yet. I worried about the things that mattered to me.
And that's what I'm going to do from now on.
Every person reading this has something to live for. It might not be family. It could be anything. If it makes you happy, it's important. Getting annoyed is easy. Our entire society is based on it. From 24 hour news channels where everyone screams at each other about doomsday to bottom of the barrel reality shows that are designed to mock oblivious people, we're in an age of cynicism. Anything can annoy us now.
It's the whole point of most entertainment. Finding things that don't are what's important. They're the things that you'll think about when you're watching yourself get wheeled past a security mirror in your blue surgical cap.
I appreciate all of you and thank you for allowing me to tell you my story here. Although my heart problems were caused by genes, that doesn't mean I'm going to neglect this new lease on life. I'm ready to tackle my world in a whole new way and be thankful for all I have. You never know what you almost lost until it's almost gone.
Be Well. Thanks to so many great people, now I will be too.