So tomorrow (Sunday) will be one week from when I suffered my heart attack. I’m 37 years old, not in terrible shape and it was nothing like I would have imagined. I figure that I can share my story and if one person can recognize some of the warning signs and prevent the attack, then that’s a good thing. I’ll go over what happened to me, but feel free to skip down to a section to learn a bit about angina and how to recognize it so you can prevent having a heart attack.
Last Sunday evening near the tail end of my beer league hockey game, I came off a pretty long shift with a pretty hard end to end skate. I hit the bench breathing hard, as I normally do (I’ve smoked since I was 13 and I’m carrying 30-35 extra pounds). By the time I made my way to my spot on the bench rotation, I noticed a tightness in my chest, but thought I had tweaked my back a little and simply pinched something. I sat down, tried to catch my breath and waited for the tightness to pass. I’ll point out that this was not searing pain, but simply mild discomfort.
After a minute or two, thoughts were running all over the place in my head and “heart attack” was briefly considered, but I decided it couldn’t be as I’m only 37 and it wasn’t a pronounced pain, my left arm wasn’t numb, etc. I chalked it up to something else but figured I would err on the side of caution and sat out my last shift of the game having someone play in my place. The game ended (a loss btw), and I skated out to shake hands with my teammates and the opposing team. Still pretty uncomfortable, but able to skate.
By the time I hit the dressing room door, all I wanted to do was sit and get out of my equipment. I wasn’t dizzy or nauseous, but I could feel the cold sweat coming in buckets and cutting through the sweat from playing hockey. I made it to my seat and got my sweater, elbow and shoulder pads offs, but things were not getting better. A teammate next to me noticed I was not doing well and asked if I was okay. I said I wasn’t sure. He asked again and then asked if I wanted to lay down. They got my knees raised and I tried to twist the knot out of my back but to no avail. After a few minutes, I felt a touch better but I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be driving myself home and wanted to get out of my gear just in case. I don’t know why it was so important at the time, but I got sat up and got my skates off. Another teammate asked if I wanted them to get somebody from the league office with first aid to check me out. After responding “not yet”, I quickly followed with ‘Yes, please”.
Luckily, the league representative was a retired EMT and as he checked pulse, pupils, etc, I blacked out and woke up about ten seconds later on the ground (they had caught me and eased me to the ground thankfully). That ten seconds felt like an hour of really solid sleep but was the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever experienced. There was no white light or floating above my body and I don’t think it was anything other than a brief loss of consciousness. I simply became aware of my limbs being moved and voices and had to think about where I was and will myself back into the dressing room, mainly because I knew that was where I should be and there was no need to stay in the calm blackness of where I was. Chris, the league rep, had me on oxygen within minutes which helped to maximize the O2 getting through my heart and preventing damage. When joined by a first responder and the EMTs, my EKG was sent to the Cardiologist and they responded with a course of action to take in the ambulance before it left the arena which included the administration of some kind of industrial strength clot buster. That clot buster (along with the efforts of Chris, the EMTs and several of my teammates) leaves me standing today.
I was shipped to Emergency at the University of Alberta and triaged pretty quickly. A team of five or six worked on getting an additional IV line in, blood work done, getting my history and a whole bunch more. I knew how serious it was when they stuck the two large pads, one to my chest, one on my back, “just in case”. My poor wife had met me at the ER and was watching all of this, beside herself I’m sure. Other than the ten seconds in the dressing room that I blacked out, I was awake and alert the whole time and asked a lot of questions. I really wanted to ask “the question” to the cardiologist, but couldn’t do it with my wife within ear shot.
After I was stabilised, I was moved up to the Critical Cardio Care unit and settled in. After three days, an angiogram (another oddity to experience), about three billion needle pokes, and surprisingly edible food, I was released to rest at home.
Hindsight and the Important Thing to Read
In hindsight, I now know that I was suffering from Angina attacks in the weeks (maybe months) before the the heart attack. Had I known this and listened to my body, I could have had it checked out and likely prevented the heart attack altogether.
As a 37 year old in moderate shape and decent health, I never would have attributed these pains to heart issues. I’m hoping by telling my story, it’ll stick somewhere in the back of your head and you’ll recognize it early enough to prevent a heart attack. Angina presented itself to me as a very mild tightness in the chest through to a couple of vertebrae in my back and would happen without a distinct pattern, though it was usually after some kind of activity or movement (not lengthy exercise, but simply standing up quickly and walking into the other room). There was only one occasion that it presented as enough to stop me from what was doing and that was only for a few minutes. It honestly felt more like a pinch in my back than anything else and was easily overlooked. It could be so mild as to be almost unnoticeable, but like I say, had I known what it was, I may have been more aware and had it checked out. If you think you may have suffered from angina, please book an appointment with your family doctor and get it looked at. You can read more on angina here and here.
The heart attack as we know it is heavily influenced by Hollywood and as I have learned the hard way, at least sometimes a fallacy. There was no chest clutching, numb left arm, “holy shit! I’m having a heart attack” moment. It was much more subtle for me. I had a tightness in my chest that penetrated through to my spine, cold sweats, and my elbow joints and shoulders both had an odd pain (like when you’ve got a really bad cold and cough really hard and it makes your joints ache), but not all at once and not all strongly pronounced. This is not to say that the symptoms you hear about are wrong, just simply that they are not always typical. I was on my feet for 15 or 20 minutes after it started, but was really just in some discomfort, not debilitating pain for most of that time. I’m pretty lucky I was playing hockey as had I been home, I may have gone for a hot shower and a tried to nap it off and may not have gotten off so easily. I have my teammates to thank for their persistence in checking up on me.
What were the causes in my case? Generally, I eat fairly well though a bit shy on the fruits and vegetables and a bit high on the salt, fat and carbs. I don’t eat a lot of fast food, barely drink pop/soda, and portions are a bit large but not excessive. As mentioned, I have smoked from the age of thirteen up until last Sunday and I own a tech company which provides plenty of stress. The last two and half years have been a roller coaster, but the last six months have been particularly stressful with a lot of projects on the go. Finances have been all over the map going from flush to destitute and back again, often in the same week. I believe that nearly a quarter century of smoking laid the groundwork, diet playing a fairly minor role and that the stress of the last couple of years was the fuse that lit things up. Lots of changes already in place and more to come as I start Cardio Rehab next week.
What I’m Asking you to do
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve lived the life of a saint and I’m certainly not going to start preaching about healthy lifestyles. What I will ask is that if you think you may have symptoms similar to what I’ve described above, or if you have a family history of heart problems or high cholesterol:
If you’re above 30, get an annual checkup with your family physician and ensure you have you cholesterol checked at least once a year, more often if you have a family history. Spend 10 minutes and do some reading on angina today (links above), keep that info in the back of your head and be aware of it just in case. It might save your life, or the life of someone you know.
As mentioned, I got off pretty lucky. I have to thank Iannick, Trevor, Dave, Jason and probably a few others from my team, Chris from the ASHL, Darryl, Dave and the EMT whose name I forget (had a touch of morphine by the time I asked), and all of the doctors and nurses in the ER and Cardio Care Unit at the University of Alberta. As much as people talk about the problems with our health care system, my experience was nothing short of world class at every turn and I’m damn lucky to live in a place where the care is of such high quality. Special thanks to my wife and family for their support and help.
Here’s to shaping up, butting out and not making any more visits to the Cardio Unit. Thanks for reading.