A Piece of My Heart
No one ever thinks about having a heart attack until they have a heart attack. And although breast cancer and HIV get more attention, heart disease is the leading killer of black women in the US.
On Friday, December 30, 2016 I had a heart attack. I was preparing to take a flight home after a short vacation, but, instead, I took a detour to the hospital where I had a stent put in a coronary artery that was 90% blocked. What’s worse is that when I got to the hospital and they ran all their tests, they said I’d probably had more than one heart attack. The scariest part is I never saw it coming.
Nope. Heart attack has no warning signs. It’s more tornado than hurricane. No symptoms beforehand to tell you it’s coming if you don’t change your lifestyle. You don’t know it’s going to happen until it’s tearing your chest up. And depending on how it happens, where it happens, and how bad it is, it may be the last thing that ever happens to you.
Thankfully, I hadn’t reached my expiration date when my heart attack occurred. Because I was given a chance to see another day, I want to share with you three things I learned from my experience that just might save your life if you suffer a heart attack and maybe prevent you from having one (or at least a second one).
1. Know the symptoms.
What the hell does a heart attack even feel like? For me it felt like shortness of breath and a tightening sensation in my chest as I quickly walked down the street. The symptoms confused and alarmed me at first, but when I stopped and waited about a minute, the pain went away and I could breathe normally. So, I went on about my business. Later that day it happened again and it lasted longer. Plus, the second time I was sitting down doing nothing. No reason for chest pain. No reason to be out of breath.
I still wasn’t sure what was going on, but I thought back to my mother who’d had a heart attack (she survived, but had to have triple bypass surgery). I distinctly remember her saying it felt like someone punched her in the chest when she walked. That was exactly how I felt. That memory made me get help. But, if I hadn’t had that memory I probably would have continued to brush off the symptoms when I shouldn’t have.
But, what if I hadn’t had those symptoms? What if I’d had some other less recognizable symptoms that didn’t seem related to the heart. Would I have even contemplated a heart attack? Probably not.
According to the CDC heart attack symptoms include chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include shooting pain down either arm, dizziness, racing heart, or pain in the neck, jaw, or throat. The problem is these often indicate other issues that usually are not life threatening. The key is to know your body and pay close attention when something seems unusual. If you eat hot sauce on everything and never get heartburn, but suddenly you eat a plain rice cake and your chest is on fire, you may be having a medical emergency. Also, if you’re having any of the various symptoms in conjunction with chest pain you should seek medical help.
2. Seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY!
If you think you’re having a heart attack go directly to the emergency room. Do not make a doctor’s appointment and wait to see her. Do not stop to pack an overnight bag or wait for your nails to dry. Don’t finish cleaning the kitchen. . . or get on a plane for even an hour-long flight. Go. To. The. Hospital.
I was headed to the airport to catch a quick flight the second time I began having chest pain and
shortness of breath. I thought, the pain isn’t too bad. The flight is only an hour. I can go straight to the hospital when I get off the plane if this is really something. Then I thought, whatever this is may get worse in flight, even a short flight. Thirty thousand feet in the air is not the place to have a medical emergency. You can’t land a plane on a cloud and get picked up by a flying ambulance.
By the time I would have been landing that evening the ER staff had run a battery of tests and determined I had indeed suffered a heart attack. They’d also begun treating me for it. I don’t like to think about what could have happened if I’d taken that flight.
3. Take care of yourself.
Now that I’ve been treated for the heart attack and released from the hospital, the next step is to take care of myself to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I have things to do. There’s no place on my schedule for a heart attack. Consequently, there are certain things I must do to reduce the chances of this happening again. They include:
a. Be more active.
Thirteen years working a desk job has made me fat, lazy, and unhealthy. I’ve got to move more. And if you lead a sedentary lifestyle you need to move more, too. That doesn’t mean going from a channel surfing couch potato to a triathlete overnight, but I must do more than walk to the refrigerator, the car, and my desk. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise and 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Now, that sounds like a lot (225 total minutes of exercise per week), but if you break it down, it’s not even 35 minutes of exercise per day. Surely, we can find the time to do that. I will, because I want to live. Let’s see—10 minutes in the morning, a 15-minute walk at work, and 10 minutes in the evening. There. I did my 35 minutes and I didn’t even have to join a gym.
b. Eat healthier.
Now that the doctors have fixed my heart, I have to make sure I don’t mess it up again. A lot of that involves being mindful about the things I eat. No, I don’t have to say goodbye to French fries absolutely and forever. But, I should only say hello to them once every other month versus once or twice a week. I must pay close attention to food labels and drastically decrease things with high levels of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium. Though it will take some getting used to, it can be done. With that in mind here are three tips for healthier eating:
1. Plan your meals. Meal planning is key to healthy eating. When I plan my meals, I do well. I select a variety of fruits and vegetables. I eat low fat meats such as fish and skinless chicken. I limit fat and salt. When I don’t plan my meals I often grab the quickest and cheapest food that tends to be the unhealthiest. Wendy’s 4 for $4 was my go to on many days when I didn’t take my lunch to work (low price, high fat, high carbs, high sodium).
2. Eat a variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups. Eating too much of anything is bad. Not eating enough of certain things can be bad, too. The best thing is to eat different foods per dietary recommendations specific to you and in moderation. Download the DASH Diet for an example of healthy heart food recommendations.
3. Pay attention to portion size. How much you eat is as important as what you eat and most of us eat way too much of everything. Learn what a serving size is and adhere to it. Most plates presented at restaurants contain way more food than a person should eat at one sitting. Measure your food and use smaller serving dishes to get in the habit of practicing portion control. Your heart, wallet, and waistline will thank you.
c. Get regular checkups.
Even if you are young and relatively healthy you should see your doctor for a physical each year. This gives you a better chance of catching any new disease in its early stages and treating and beating it versus the alternative. Also, when you get the checkup be compliant with the doctor’s instructions. The doctor tells you to do things for a reason, not because she gets a kick out of making your life difficult.
You should especially see your physician if you have other medical conditions that could increase your chances of having a heart attack, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. I’m Type 1 diabetic and I hadn’t seen any of my doctors in months. If I’d been more diligent about keeping my appointments and following previously prescribed treatment regimens I probably wouldn’t have had to spend four days in the hospital and have a balloon put in my heart. In addition to that I now have new meds to take on top of the old ones. But, I’m not complaining; I just have to be more vigilant. Plus, I didn’t die so. . .