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Heart Attack Waiting to Happen: One Man’s Story

At 49, he was obese and diabetic. Then came the wake-up call.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in an ongoing Next Avenue series about one Minnesota man’s lifelong struggle with obesity and what he’s learned since deciding to confront it through weight-loss surgery. Find earlier posts here.

Nov. 19, 2012 was a typical Monday morning. Forty-five minute commute to my work as a lawyer. Up to my desk, prepare for a morning mediation. I felt fine as I hit the road.

When I reached my desk, I was a little queasy. Unsettled. My skin crawled, I guess. I looked over my file, but found myself oddly uncomfortable.

I did what any normal 49-year-old man would do: ignored it.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: The 3 Best Ways to Eat for a Healthy Heart)

But the feeling wouldn’t leave me. I found myself on the computer consulting Dr. Google for medical advice. I ended up at WebMD and the Mayo Clinic site. Eventually, my searching found me gazing at signs of a heart attack. I really couldn’t check many of the boxes:

  • Chest pain? No.
  • Pain in my abdomen? No.
  • Jaw, neck or tooth pain? No.
  • Shortness of breath? No.
  • Dizziness? No.
  • Sweating? Yes.
  • Nausea? Yes.

Only two of the seven signs were present. But my Internet research also told me that about 25 percent of heart attacks occur with little or no warning. I was obese with a family history of heart disease. Was it was possible that I was having a heart attack?

(MORE: How Diabetics Can Decrease Their Risk of Heart Disease)

So I did what any man would do: rode the elevator down 43 floors, transferred to another elevator bank and rode down to my car in the underground parking garage. I didn’t say a word to my colleague in the office. I thought I was feeling better. By the time I reached my car, I was feeling worse. Sweating, nausea and with a strong feeling that something was wrong.

I canceled my meeting and did — again — what any man would do: drove myself a few blocks to nearby Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), a major public hospital and trauma center and walked into the emergency room.

I Don’t Like Mondays

It was about 8:45 a.m. The desk clerk was engaged in conversation when I walked up; I interrupted and told her I was worried about my heart, which got her attention.

I had called my wife to tell her I was on my way to the ER. Molly wasn’t too concerned because I’d been in one of my sporadic exercise phases and had worked out on Sunday and felt fine. She casually commented, “Why can’t you just drive to Woodwinds?” a posh suburban hospital 20 miles from downtown Minneapolis and convenient to our home. “Because I’m worried I’m having a heart attack,” I said, exasperated. In her defense, Molly’s not much for downtown driving.

It turns out that in addition to the reasons given to us by the Boomtown Rats in “I Don’t Like Mondays," Mondays are the day of the week when a high incidence of heart attacks occur. Sunday night had featured several other stressors for my heart: a family meltdown while clothes shopping for our 14-year-old daughter and an oversized, greasy dinner.

Yes, You Are Having A Heart Attack

The initial test results brought relief. Pulse, blood pressure, EKG/ECG: all normal. The hospital staff gave me four baby aspirin and drew blood. I was feeling better. The two ER docs didn’t seem too concerned. 

I was more worried about the woman in the exam area next to me. Separated by only curtains, I learned she was in her 70s and had been experiencing severe pain in her back for three months and was just now seeking help. I could hear every word her two grandchildren, who were probably in their early 20s, had to say. Their visit to grandma was not in the spirit of support; instead, they shook her down for $50, saying they wouldn’t leave without the cash. She relented and paid, just before I was going to front the ransom so they would leave. As Thug 1 and Thug 2 left, they stole a box of latex gloves from the wall. “Sweet,” I remember thinking, “so sweet.” 

If I wasn’t having a heart attack, the shakedown was going to start one.

I waited. It seemed like forever. The doctors left me alone, but my heart was being monitored. Then the blood test came back. The cardiac enzyme test, the two young ER docs told me, determined I was having a heart attack. No need to panic. They had a plan. I was next up to go to the cath lab where I would undergo coronary angioplasty and my blockages would be assessed and hopefully repaired by the placement of stents.

Our Own Seinfeld Episode

Molly arrived, which helped immensely. This became what we refer to as our Seinfeld moment. It turns out that like Elaine’s decision on Seinfeld to grab some Jujyfruits before visiting her boyfriend Jake at the hospital after a car accident, Molly enjoyed a microwave burrito before heading downtown to check on me.

After waiting a few hours (which seemed like an eternity), I was in the cath lab for angioplasty. The procedure was successful, two stents were placed and I spent two nights in the hospital. Despite its St. Elsewhere trappings, the care I received at HCMC was outstanding: the doctors, nurses and staff were amazing. I was back at work a couple of days after my discharge. I was admonished for driving myself to the ER. Turns out, the experts recommend calling an ambulance.

Successful Weight Loss

I remember telling Molly shortly after my discharge: “If I don’t lose weight now, I’m nuts.” 

I did lose weight. I attended cardiac rehab. I exercised at home. I hired a personal trainer. Real progress … until the progress stopped. My old habits crept back in. I have, at times, been able to diet. I have, at times, been able to exercise. Rarely have I put both critical pieces together. Ultimately, I fell back on a very old excuse: I didn’t have time to take care of myself.

(MORE: How to Navigate the Diet Landscape)

The weight came back. The back pain returned. The limitations on my life were real. 

Fourteenth Time Is A Charm

My endocrinologist again suggested weight-loss surgery. This was the 13th time he had discussed this with me over a seven-year time span. I was afraid of surgery. I was afraid of life without a French fry. I was afraid of the stigma some people associate with weight-loss surgery.

“Can all of this loss possibly be worth it?” I wondered. 

Fear had paralyzed me, and my health was held hostage. 

Today, after joining the ranks of those in the weight-loss surgery community, I now know it is common for the decision to undergo a bariatric procedure to be years in the making.

Time was running out for me. I was obese, diabetic, and with a heart attack under my belt. I had a family history of heart disease. The message could not have been clearer that a drastic response was necessary, but I was not hearing it because of my fear. 

After a visit to my endocrinologist in the spring of this year — a 14th note in my chart was made about his recommendation for bariatric surgery — I finally took a major step: I attended a weight-loss surgery information session. I was one big step closer, but new hurdles would appear.

Next: Giving Thanks for a New, Thinner Body

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