Why I Had a Heart Attack Party

dancingWho doesn’t love a good heart attack party?  A little before the one-year anniversary of my cardiac event, my family and I started joking that my 1st birthday was approaching.  After all, one of the many benefits of coming back from the dead is you get two birthdays.

My original birthday means another year older.   My new birthday means the gift of another year with family and friends.  We realized how lucky we were to have this amazing gift, a second chance at life, so we decided a party was in order.

We started out calling the event a “second chance party” but somehow “heart attack party” stuck.  As for the name “heart attack party”, I posted earlier about my tendency to describe my cardiac arrest and heart attack singularly as a “heart attack”.  Whatever we called the party, the purpose was celebrate and show gratitude for a second chance at life.  If you know my story, you know that I have a lot to be grateful for:

  • Having survived a cardiac arrest and heart attack.  Less than 10% survive such an event.  I needed a reminder of just how lucky I was.

  • Having successful bypass surgery – My arteries were cleaned out!  A fresh start and a defibrillator implanted “just in case”.

  • Having an awesome wife – This is a big one.  She found me in cardiac arrest and saved my life.  As a bonus, a few month into my recovery, she gave birth to our son.

  • Having two beautiful young children – Kids love parties.  Especially parties with moon bounces.

  • Having a great family – When I went down, my family went into action.  They put their lives on hold and  stayed by our sides throughout my recovery process.

  • Having great friends – Friends and neighbors rallied as well.  Meals and babysitting were much appreciated!

  • Having a great job – My boss and company made sure my family had the support we needed during my extended vacation.

With the gift that I was given, my list should be much longer, but this was a good start for the heart attack party.  If you are truly feeling Zen and want to read more on the benefits of feeling grateful, take a look at this post by Leo Babauta.

Although I haven’t been to any other heart attack parties for comparison, I think our’s was a great success.  We had a pool and moon bounce for the kids and plenty of food and drink for the adults.  Keeping with my long history of passive aggressive behavior, I served BBQ and grilled Italian sausages at the heart attack party.  Keeping with her tradition of being a rock, my wife gave a very touching public thank you to our family and friends.

Although we don’t have the party annually anymore, we are not done being grateful.  Our plan is to have another one at my ten year anniversary/birthday.  Let me know if you are coming.

Photo credit: Duke Yearlook / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Why I Lied About My Cardiac Arrest

michael jackson and the bee geesLying About My Cardiac Arrest

Do you know the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest? Don’t worry, I have experienced both and I didn’t know the difference for quite a while afterwards. Sad, but true. My standard response when someone asked what happened to me – “I had a heart attack”. I wasn’t lying or misleading intentionally, I just didn’t fully understand what I had been through.

Looking back, I think I described my cardiac event as a heart attack because the concept of heart attack was more familiar to me than cardiac arrest. After all, both my father and brother had suffered heart attacks at the age of 39. It was a family tradition! One of the first things I said when I woke up in the hospital was “I beat them”. Meaning, I lasted until I was 41 before having my heart attack. I beat them in another way also, my heart attack came with a cardiac arrest.

The Truth from Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s death made me realize he and I were similar in ways far beyond our dancing skills. It was an article that I read about his death that finally made me understand the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. It says a lot about my intellect that I didn’t take notice of this a year earlier when Tim Russert suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. A heart attack is plumbing – your arteries are blocked. A cardiac arrest is electrical – your heart stops beating (think death). Here are the differences and how I experienced each:

  • A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents blood from reaching a section of the heart. My arteries were a mess. An initial angiography at the hospital demonstrated multivessel coronary artery disease with the right coronary artery 99% blocked.
  • Symptoms may be immediate and intense, or they may start slowly and persist for hours, days or weeks before the attack occurs. My wife said I had complained of feeling run down or tired for several days prior to collapsing.
  • The heart usually does not stop beating during a heart attack. Once I had the heart attack, I moved on to cardiac arrest, so my heart did stop beating.
  • Cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and often without warning. Since my cardiac arrest was the consequence of an acute inferior posterior infarct (heart attack) there was a little bit of a warning.
  • Cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat. My electrical systems was in a definite state of malfunction. Paramedics performed CPR and shocked my heart from v-fib (cardiac arrest) to a-fib (irregular heartbeat).

For those that are more visual, check out this Cardiac Arrest versus Heart Attack Infographic provided by the American Heart Association for a great depiction of the differences.

Saved by the Bee Gees

So how did I survive both a heart attack and cardiac arrest? After all, the odds are not good. According to the American Heart Association, over 90% of those suffering a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital died. I survived because of the quick actions of my wife and a team of paramedics and doctors. My wife immediately started CPR which was then continued by paramedics when they arrived. They also shocked me with a defibrillator and gave me a quick shot of epinephrine.

So you may be wondering about the role of the Bee Gees in my survival. Guidance for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) states that hand compressions should be administered hard and fast to the middle of chest at 100 beats per minute, roughly the same amount of beats per minute on the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” track. How do I know my CPR was administered hard and fast? They broke my sternum! And I stayed alive.

I don’t recommend relying on Michael Jackson for your cardiac education and the Bee Gees to save your life. Hopefully, you are now aware of the basic difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. I do recommend avoiding both if possible. You can do so living a healthy lifestyle. Stay tuned for an upcoming series full of heart healthy lifestyle tips.

Photo credit: Sheba_Also / Foter /Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

What To Do After a Heart Attack – 6 Steps For Recovery

So you just had a major cardiac event, maybe a cardiac arrest, heart attack or bypass surgery. Your recovery is going well and you are soon to be discharged from the hospital.  Sounds good, right?  Oddly enough, being told I was ready for discharge was both good news and bad news.

The good news – I had survived a cardiac arrest, heart attack, bypass surgery, and insertion of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) – a second chance at life.

The bad news – I was 41, I had cardiovascular disease, a little machine in my chest (the above mentioned ICD), and what I viewed as a very uncertain future.  A precarious situation for the father of a 3-year-old daughter and a soon to be born son.

The funny newsMy discharge report included a diagnosis of “altered mental state”.  No, I wasn’t crazy.  It was just the lingering neurological effects a cardiac arrest has on the memory.  I think?

So I was uncertain and a little confused.  If only I had a nice list telling me what to do next…

And look at that, a nice list:

  1. Accept change
  2. Get active
  3. Socialize
  4. Manage the meds
  5. Check your head
  6. Pat yourself on the back

Great list, but what does it mean?

Accept Change

After the din of the hospital, that first week at home seemed quiet and and a bit unsettling.  I didn’t have a button to push if I felt a pain or needed a nurse.  I had to move into the guest room on the main level of our house to avoid the stairs.  I couldn’t pick up my daughter or allow her to crawl on me.  Showering was a major endeavor.  I wasn’t going to work.  I definitely felt life had changed.  Lucky for me, my wife was a rock; taking care of me, our daughter, and managing all my doctors, prescriptions, insurance claims, and home care.  Know that things are going to be different for awhile.  Accept it and move forward.

Get Active

After a few days, I started to settle into a new normal.  I was still in a lot of pain and sleep was difficult, but I was on the upswing.  I started my walking routine, getting outside a couple of times a day.  The doctors told me I needed to get my strength back.  The way to make that happen was to eat a lot, walk a lot, and rest.  I enjoyed the green light from my cardiologist to eat whatever I wanted in those first few weeks.  I also enjoyed napping twice a day (although the doctor put an end to that pretty quickly).  I found the exercise provided a physical and mental boost as well as a good sense of accomplishment.  Look at me, 41 and just realizing exercise may have positive effects on ones well being.

Socialize

We had many visitors when I returned home.  It was great to see people and be social.  We are eternally grateful for the amazing support we received from family, friends, and neighbors.  A week after I got out of the hospital, my wife and I went to a friends house for a get together. It was good to see everyone and resume normal activities, but I remember also feeling a bit overwhelmed.  I guess the party made me realize life goes on if I am there or not.  The emotional and mental stuff will be discussed more in a bit.  Everyone was very supportive and told me I looked great.  Of course they were lying, but it was nice to hear and also to see everyone.

Manage the Meds

When we got home that afternoon, I told my wife I wasn’t feeling well.  She had noticed something was off and said my skin had a grayish hue.  In light of recent events, we were little freaked out and decided to take a trip to the emergency room.  This is where things get interesting.

One benefit of my recent cardiac event, VIP treatment at the ER.  That’s right, no waiting room for me.  The nurse began to hook me up for an EKG and we started chatting.  I gave him my history and he said, “Oh man, you’re that guy!  I was here the night you came in.  We never thought you were going to make it”.  Then he called a few buddies over to prove I was still alive.   I quickly went from VIP to freak show.

Next thing, my wife starts to have contractions.  She is a little over five months pregnant at this point and was supposed to be on partial bed rest.  She was put on a gurney right next to me.  Our first date night post-cardiac event.

Several hours later, we had an update.  At five months along, we already knew my wife was pregnant, so that was not really an update.  She was told to stay off of her feet and get some rest.  If I remember correctly, my diagnosis was drug induced hepatitis.  That was a fancy way of saying I was on too many medications and my body was protesting.  I was immediately taken off of everything and sent home.  If it’s that easy to stop all the medications, why was I on them in the first place?

I learned two lessons that evening:

  1. Don’t have a major cardiac event when your wife is pregnant.  It’s just not considerate.
  2. Question all medications.  Ask why you are on them and for how long.  For insurance and liability reasons, hospitals may discharge you on a potent and unnecessary cocktail of medications.

Check Your Head

Many cardiac patients often feel a variety of emotions and mild depression during the recovery process.  According to Dr. Leo Pozuelo at the Cleveland Clinic,

“it is common for you to feel sad or depressed after a heart attack, cardiac surgery or procedure, recent hospitalization, or new diagnosis of heart disease. These emotions may be the result of not knowing what to expect or not being able to do simple tasks without becoming overly tired”.

As I mentioned above, I found myself dealing with the exact emotions Dr. Pozuelo refers to in his article; I was stressed over the uncertainty of my future and having difficulty adjusting to my new way of living.

Dr. Pozeulo goes on to say

“the temporary feelings of sadness are normal, and should gradually go away within a few weeks, as you get back to your normal routine and activities”.

Getting back to a normal routine is key.  I found my symptoms did disappear after a few weeks.

The depression was gone, but I remained very stressed out about my situation.  Oddly enough, the best insurance I had against another cardiac arrest, the ICD in my chest, was a major source of stress.  I was constantly aware of the lump under my skin.  I was worried that every odd feeling in my chest was another massive electrical storm about to kick off.

I found this article from the Harvard Health Publication describing how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) applies to those of us in the cardiac recovery process. According to the article, there are four simple questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you think about the event when you don’t want to?
  • Do you avoid situations, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of it?
  • Do you feel constantly on alert?
  • Are you feeling detached from family and friends?

Strange thing is, these questions also seem appropriate for assessing my recovery from the religious guilt I was blessed with during my childhood.  For now, just apply these questions to your cardiac recovery.  If this is you, please talk to your loved ones AND a healthcare professional.  Recovery takes an understanding of what you have been through, what your loved ones have been through, time, more time, and the acceptance of the personal and professional support available to you.

Pat Yourself on the Back

If you are finding your recovery stressful (did I mention that I did?) that might explain how you ended up a cardiac patient in the first place.  The first few days, weeks, and months of recovery are tough.  Be patient and accept the help being offered. It is hard to objectively assess what you have been through or how you are progressing. Listen to the guidance and support provided by your doctors, family and friends.  Most of all, congratulate yourself for being a survivor and appreciate the recovery process for what it is – a second chance.