February is American Heart Month, a time to make people more aware of heart disease and the impact it can have on families and lives. My father was only 41 years old when he died of a massive heart attack. He had gone to the doctor because of chest pains, but nothing was found and he was given a clean bill of health. That was in 1959, when heart medicine was not as advanced as it is today.
I was two years old when my father died and I have no memories of him. I have heard he was a generous and loving man, with a bit of a temper and a certain amount of stubbornness. I have been told, quite often, that I look just like him.
My dad’s death left me in the only single-parent household in my class at my small town school the entire time I was growing up. It left me with fears about being orphaned, without a male role model, and with questions about how everything might have been different if he had lived. The only recurring dream of my childhood was one in which a unit of soldiers, led by my dad, came marching up Sidney Street in Shullsburg, turned the corner by our house, and my father came home. But that was a dream. It denied the reality that his body had given out and he would never be a part of my life.
The genes must have been strong. A little over three years ago I followed in my father’s footsteps and had a very serious heart attack, although it was ten years later in my life than his age when he had his. One hundred percent of my left coronary was blocked and I went through what one of the doctors later described as a “serious life-threatening event”. I had four stents put in and was hospitalized for five days and took a couple months to recover and return to work.
Really, a lot of my heart attack can only be attributed to genetics. Many of the usual indicators were not in place for me. My blood pressure has always been low. My cholesterol was within acceptable ranges. I had quit drinking almost 20 years before the heart attack and had quit smoking a dozen years beforehand. I was, however, about forty pounds overweight at the time and at one point had been about twenty pounds more than that. Still, I hiked a lot and was fairly active in that way, though I was not eating right or exercising in any kind of regular way.
What I didn’t notice were some of the typical signs. I had found myself getting shorter and shorter of breath when hiking or climbing stairs and in my mind blamed it on the excess weight. In reality it was that my heart was having to pump harder to try to push blood through clogged arteries. I found myself tired a great deal of the time and blamed it on being too busy. I should have listened a little closer to my body. I also was not visiting a doctor regularly, having gone many years without a checkup.
I was lucky to survive my heart attack and it’s possible that the same event in a different era, such as my dad’s, would have left me dead. It is amazing what doctors can do now to keep people alive in situations that years ago would have been the end of the line. In some ways I view the heart attack as a gift, as it refocused my life and helped me to zero in on the things that are truly important to me. But it was an incredibly painful way to come to those realizations. I would encourage anyone who is feeling the symptoms I described, who may be overweight, or who may be avoiding the doctor to go in for a checkup. If you get a clean bill of health then you can breathe a sigh of relief. If the checkup finds something that could be treated your life may be extended by years.
Note: For more information on improving heart health and signs of possible heart disease go to the American Heart Association site at www.heart.org.