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. I awoke to severe pain in both arms, and felt like two elephants were perched atop a broomstick pressing into my chest. The ambulance ride to the hospital seemed brief, but I really don’t know how long it lasted. I can only recall that I was in a quiet panic, mumbling my last prayers before I went “poof,” yet still hoping I would wake up in this world. I did -- in an intensive care unit, extremely tired, weak, and disoriented.
Eventually, I went home and after a yearlong effort, I was able to kick my 30-year smoking habit. All was well until 15 years later when I had a second heart attack. But this time it was different. The pain was mild. I was simply short of breath and sweating. My wife recognized this as symptomatic of a heart attack. She insisted I go to the hospital, where the doctors told me my heart had suffered major damage. Two weeks later I was released with a stack of prescriptions and advice to see my doctor often.
Then, just last year, I found I couldn’t get through the day without a nap. I didn’t have the energy to mow the lawn, do fix-up jobs around the house, or spend time with my grandchildren. I had started a novel, but I couldn’t even write.
My cardiologist told me my heart function was at about 35% capacity in comparison to a healthy heart. He suggested a defibrillator implant. On his advice, I visited another cardiologist who specialized in these devices. The implant he wanted to give me is called an ICD, or implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a device designed to monitor for abnormal heart rhythms.
There is always a risk with any surgery, and I was apprehensive. The very thought of this one, where the doctor cuts into your chest, inserts a gadget, and attaches wires from it to the vessels that lead to your heart, was traumatic in itself. But then I was told I would be the first person in the United States to get this particular model. Wow! I sure felt special, but the downside was that there weren’t any testimonials or reports about how well (or badly) it functioned. “I sure hope it works,” I thought.
Well, so far it has. I can mow the lawn and do chores again. My wife says she has her husband back and that I really should start writing again. I have renewed energy but also -- and most important -- I have hope.
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Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.