I had no inkling I had heart disease until December 2005, when I had two minor episodes of mild angina (pain in the chest area). My primary care physician ran an electrocardiogram but saw nothing abnormal. I was an athletic, lean 53-year-old who ate nutritious foods. He decided I was just stressed and gave me the go-ahead to go to Nicaragua on vacation.
But while there, the angina went from mild to severe. The pain would come and go, but on three separate occasions the pain was the most massive thing I could imagine. Every little motion made it worse. I was sweating and could not move. A local doctor gave me medication to bring my blood pressure down and stop the angina. But I couldn't fly home for two weeks because the changes in airplane cabin pressure could induce a heart attack.
I had my first heart attack 26 years ago, when I was 52. I was very active
then, sometimes jogging and often walking long distances. But I was also on the
congressional staff in Washington, and the day leading up to the attack was
even more hectic than usual. My boss was introducing major legislation, and I
had crafted an important floor speech. I didn’t have time for regular meals and
ate a huge cheeseburger for dinner, then smoked three or four cigarettes.
It happened about 3 in the morning...
When I got home, I went to the local emergency room. The staff took chest X-rays then immediately ordered an ambulance to take me to another hospital. Two of my arteries were 99% blocked, a third was 80% blocked, and I had other blockages further down my arteries. It seemed impossible -- three weeks earlier I had felt fine. But a secondary system of blood vessels had grown around my heart and was doing the work of the blocked arteries. I had triple bypass surgery the following day.
Afterward, when my wife asked about my prognosis, the doctor responded with a stony silence. I knew then I had to be committed to my recovery. I work as a computer programmer and am quite methodical, so I set up a recovery program. Week by week I built up my strength, starting with walking to the kitchen, then walking down the block, and then using my treadmill, rowing machine, and [exercise bicycle]. I monitored my heart rate and wrote down everything I did and how it affected my heart and breath. I also researched journal articles on heart disease, nutrition, and exercise rehab.
By spring 2009, I could play badminton for three hours without breaking. By 2010, I could play full-court basketball. I was the only one over the age of 20, and I was not run off the court.