I discovered I have a lot to be grateful for this week: I survived my first (and hopefully last) heart attack.
On Tuesday morning I was at my usual 6:00am kickboxing class, where I’ve been going most mornings for the past 1.5 years (JabX Kickboxing – awesome place, btw). After the typically intense 10 minute warm-up (which included two one minute rounds of burpees), I had a drink of water and noticed my chest felt tight – uncomfortable but not super painful. This sensation extended a little into my left shoulder. At first I thought I had swallowed the water funny, so I sat out the first 3 minute bag round. When it wasn’t getting better, I decided to leave the workout and go home, which I’ve never done before.
As I was driving, the feeling wasn’t getting any better, I debated whether this was a big deal or whether I was just being alarmist. Since I had never had this sensation before, I ultimately decided to stop at the emergency room at Overlake Hospital, which was on my way home. I also decided if I were really having a heart attack, it would be OK to park in the “ER only” parking spaces out front. (Yes, I really debated this.)
There was no one in the waiting room when I went in, so I got prompt attention from the receptionist, who promptly lectured me to call 911 next time instead of driving myself in (this would later turn out to be the single-most proffered bit of advice I would get.) I texted my wife Michelle at 6:27am that I was in the ER but that she shouldn’t come yet until I knew more. The triage nurse asked me a question or two and then promptly wheeled me back into the ER. As a good geek, I remember admiring the huge (maybe 80”+) monitor they had next to the bed. I also remember feeling embarrassed this was happening to me at such a relatively young age.
I was on a table and then suddenly there were 6-7 people in the room swirling around putting IVs in, asking me questions, sticking EKG pads onto me, drawing blood, and changing me out of my clothes. They also gave me a few baby aspirin to chew and then put a nitroglycerin tablet under my tongue. Based on my EKG someone confirmed that it looked like the lower part of my heart had a blockage and wasn’t getting enough oxygen: I was having a heart attack. I texted Michelle at 6:44am letting her know. I let my assistant Emilie know too that I wouldn’t be in today due to a “medical issue”. (Michelle gave her more details later, for which Emilie gave me grief later, “’Medical issue’ huh?”)
They were going to need to do an angioplasty, a procedure where they run a wire through your artery to your heart and then inflate a little balloon to expand the artery to let blood get by the blockage. The staff wasn’t sure whether the cardiologist would want to go in through the artery in my right arm or via my artery in my groin, so they prepped both. For my groin, this meant a very quick (2-3 swipes with an electric shaver) shave of my pubic hair; this was far less sexy than I had perhaps hoped. The first blood chemistry test showed my troponin level was negative. This is a protein released into the blood stream when the heart muscle is damaged; it’s a good marker for heart attacks apparently. The fact it wasn’t showing up was a good sign.
The cardiologist, Dr. Joe Doucette, explained what was going on, what was going to happen, and what the risks were. He was quick to reassure me that my case was straightforward so there shouldn’t be any big issues. He chose to go through my arm (for which I was grateful). They gave me a local anesthetic and a sedative (like Valium) and blocked my view a bit. The next parts are a bit hazy, but very soon after, Dr. Doucette explained what he saw and did. A small artery was blocked, preventing blood from getting to a very small part of my heart (he gestured like it was less than one square inch). The angioplasty balloon opened up the vessel restoring flow. He also used the wire system to shoot some medicine that also helped clear up the fatty deposits. The artery was too small to insert a stent. I then got a doppler echocardiogram, where they use ultrasound to see how blood is moving through your heart, how the heart is beating, and how the valves were moving. The person doing the test very patiently answered my questions (of which I had many).
I was driven up (the beds are motorized!) to the Critical Care Unit where I was told I would at least be spending the night for observation. Michelle met me there. My brother, Ives, arrived shortly thereafter. At this point, my chest pain was gone, replaced by a little soreness in my chest. I was hooked up to a saline IV to wash the dye they used in the procedures out of my blood (since some people’s kidneys have problems with the dye). This would be the first of several things I’d have done to counteract some other part of my treatment. I also had a liquid-filled balloon-ish thing around my right wrist compressing the hole in my arm where the angioplasty wire had gone in. Over the next few hours, the nurses would release a little fluid from the balloon at a time and check if the hole was healing. How well this healed seemed to be the biggest post-operative concern, since blood and ooze would come out if it didn’t heal well. That’s apparently bad.
Dr. Doucette came in a little later and confirmed that everything looked great on the echocardiogram. He even thought the affected area might have gotten blood from other surrounding vessels so combined with the very fast treatment, he didn’t think there would be any long-term issues. I very quickly felt fine/normal with the exception of a headache I would have the whole stay, which was a side effect of the nitroglycerin.
The rest of the day passed pretty uneventfully. I hung out chatting with my family and napping. My son, Michael (16), and our dear friend Stacy arrived later, and I got a surprise visit from my former manager at Amazon, Sean. I posted what happened on Facebook and was amazed how quickly my friends responded on Facebook, in text messages, and in email. (You all need to get back to work…) I exchanged a little email with my current manager and Senior VP, Sebastian, who was incredibly gracious and supportive.
Later that night, after enjoying a strawberry Jell-O, I slept very well, despite the noise (lots of machines beeping and general activity in a hospital). It was the first time I had ever spent a night in a hospital for my own issues, having only spent the night before in the maternity ward after the kids were born. A tech woke up me up at 4:00am for a blood draw, and another woke me up at 6:00am for another EKG. Michelle came back around 7:45am. Dr. Doucette and his nurse practitioner came by a little later to check on me and tell me about all the medication. I was out by 9:50am.
The nurses and staff were all awesome – friendly, super competent, and patient with my questions. My first nurse Aimee apparently set the standard for the others by putting Post-it tabs on the packet of material they gave me about my medications; the other nurses apparently posted pictures of it on Facebook. The hospital provided a nice sounding menu from which I could pick my meals. Patients call down and order as though it were room service. The food was a big step up from the hospital food I remember from when the kids were born, but it didn’t quite live up to the way it sounded on the menu. (Better than most coach airline meals but not nearly as good as international business class meals.)
For many years I’ve had a tendency toward high blood pressure and high cholesterol, despite my regular exercise regime. I’ll have to watch my diet even more going forward and will be on a bevy of meds for a while. I’ll also have to take it easy for a while, but I can start getting back to my normal life soon.
While having a heart attack undoubtedly sucks, I find myself feeling very grateful. Incredibly grateful in fact.
- I’m incredibly grateful to have had such great medical care available when I need it. I could easily have been far away from attention when this happened. I also realize I’m fortunate to be able to afford this medical care, through my employer-provided insurance and my good financial situation. This will be a minor event for me financially but could have ruined someone else.
- I feel lucky this happened in 2017. It’s amazing to me I could be out of the hospital and running errands just over 24 hours after having a heart attack. Even maybe 20 years ago they would have either just given me nitroglycerin and aspirin hoping the pain would go away or they’d have to do surgery.
- I’m incredibly grateful for the generous support of my Amazon management, colleagues, and team while I recover. I don’t doubt for a moment that I can take as much time as I need without fear of losing my job or standing.
- I’m grateful to myself for putting aside any notion of heroism or pride. Going to the ER immediately made all the difference. (And yes, I know, I should have called 911 instead.)
- I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from my friends from around the world and from all times of my life. By way of example, I got 424 reactions and 411 comments on my initial Facebook post (I think the first 100 came in less than 30 minutes) and 307 reactions and 20 comments on my note about leaving the hospital. I was also flooded with email, text messages, flowers, and even a phone call (funny how that was the least commonly used technology). I can’t tell you how amazing this was.
- I’m reminded how lucky I am to have Michelle, my boys, my brother, and my parents.
More than anything, I’m grateful this was just a warning shot, a reminder to take care of myself because I have a lot to live for.