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.
It’s dramatic when someone has a heart attack on television or in the movies. But in real life, symptoms can be more subtle and difficult to identify. And because heart attack and angina symptoms are so similar, it may be hard to tell what's going on.
But knowing the differences -- and the reasons behind them -- can result in seeking treatment sooner, and living longer.
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.