"I had open heart surgery recently," a man told me while sipping tea and nibbling a cookie at a social event. This was a first meeting. Minutes earlier, get-acquainted pleasantries were exchanged. He spoke quietly about an event that was high in his awareness. I sensed he wanted someone else to know about it and invited him to tell me more.
"I had an uncommon feeling in the front part of my left shoulder," the man said. "It was hardly noticeable, so I disregarded it. Some time later, I experienced a similar, more intense sensation again. This time I went to my family physician. He examined me and said, 'Go to the hospital right away! I'll call ahead so they will be ready for you.'"
Extensive surgery was necessary. The surgery was successful, and here he was to tell a part of that story. "Most of us know many of the signs of a heart attack," he said. "It is the small, subtle, initial symptoms that are so important," he continued. "I've tried over the years to be reasonable, not be a complainer. The doc said I did the right thing, except that I should have come to him after the first episode."
I shared with him aspects of my heart experience 16 years earlier. The preliminary symptoms were similar, but like my new friend, I noted them but took no action.
It was mid-December. I was helping with the promotion of a cookbook, moving six boxes of two dozen books each from a room on one floor to another by carrying them up a flight of stairs two boxes at a time. Ordinarily, that would not have been a chore for me. On this occasion I broke out into heavy perspiration and my breath became labored. I completed the task. After awhile I could breath normally and wasn't perspiring. I went about other business. Why this situation did not alarm me, I don't know.
That next evening I experienced discomfort in my chest. It went away. I attributed it to indigestion.
The following day Sally and I went out for a walk. It was a cold December evening with a slight breeze in the air. We walked two blocks when I experienced a distinct discomfort, a weakness. Breathing in the cold air hurt. I was faint. I went home to bed. In the morning, while feeling somewhat better, I realized something significant was happening and went (at last) to the emergency room at Trumbull Memorial Hospital.
I remember being on a treadmill for a stress test. The angle of the mill was steep and the rotation of the belt seemed about as fast as I could tolerate it. The cardiologist recommended that I go to St. Elizabeth Health Center that afternoon for a heart catheterization first thing in the morning.
In the operating room, the cath experience and what it might show scared me half to death. I needed an angel of mercy. She came to sit immediately behind me, so close that she could speak into my ear with comforting assurance that all was going well. I never saw her. Brave guy that I sometimes purport to be, I needed an angel to get through it. She was there.
The play by play concluded with the cardiologist advising me that I had had a "silent heart attack" (a heart attack at some undetermined earlier date). An artery was significantly blocked, but the needed life-giving blood had found other passages to nourish the heart and keep me going. I had formed a natural bypass.
The physician told me not to smoke, to reduce my day to day stress, exercise more and lose weight. I have succeeded with the first three orders. The fourth is a work in progress. A nutritionist told me never to eat a meal bigger than the size of my two fists. A cardiologist said, "If you put anything in your mouth that tastes good, immediately spit it out." Interesting and humorous, but not helpful.
I think if we each tell our stories now and then, some of the younger guys may go to the doc after the first symptom rather than the second or third - or last!