My journey through post-heart attack land is a traveler’s work-in-progress. I’m learning more and more about the backroads and red flags in Cardio Land. So here’s the latest…
I’m still alive! And so are you. The rest is gravy. Or icing on the cake. Neither of which I should be eating now…
Two months ago I did not know that heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. For women and men. Never crossed my mind. But now it’s personal and I really understand how we ladies are especially proficient at talking ourselves out of it. We’re too busy. Not today buddy…
The force may be strong in Luke Skywalker’s family but denial is the party planner in mine. As you may recall, my early-morning symptoms were squishy and ho-hum. Mild heartburn, some tightness that crept into my neck and jaw. A little achy breaky in my arms and chest. I tried to shake it off: “Walk around Cali.” “Sit down Cali.”
You’d think I was playing musical chairs. But soon I was breathing harder and feeling nauseous. We know what a heart attack looks like in the movies… I wasn’t grabbing my chest, howling at the moon or seeing dead relatives beckon me from the other side.
But I knew something was wrong and that’s when I swallowed a regular strength aspirin. I learned later in the hospital that it’s better to CHEW it. Nonetheless the blood thinning process had begun with that one Bayer. This little act of doing something was just enough to push me through the veil of denial.
I will be forever grateful to the morning staff at UCLA’s Emergency Room for taking my lady symptoms very seriously. And now it’s been eight weeks since my heart attack and between the “please-tell-me-what-the-hell-happened” appointment with my cardiologist and the first meet and greet with the staff in Cardiac Rehab, I’m learning about the risk factors that contribute to heart disease and the steps we can take to find healthy detours through this land.
My cardiologist explains that the plaque that builds up in our arteries can crack. Like plaster or my beloved acrylic nails. The body goes “Ding! Ding!” “Injury! Injury!” “Send the Troops!” In this case, the big guns are the itty bitty platelets in our blood. Word gets out, as if this is how the body does social media. Platelets rush to the cracked plaque and gather ‘round. Now it’s about crowd control. Things get crazy. And sticky. My cardiologist snaps his fingers and says a blood clot can form just like that.
The nurse in Cardiac Rehab tells me that my 80% blockage was in the worst part of the biggest coronary artery, the one that supplies breakfast, lunch and dinner to the largest area of the heart. It’s called the LAD. That does NOT stand for Let’s All Dance. It is referred to as “The Widow Maker,” also known as the Left Anterior Descending, which means it’s on the left side of the heart, in the front and points down. My blockage was at the top of the artery where the spigot opens and it could have, potentially, cut off the blood supply to that entire side of the heart.
Slowly it’s sinking in–how close I came to sustaining permanent damage to my heart, how close I came to shuffling off this mortal coil. In the snap of a finger. I’m not kidding when I tell you that getting to the Emergency Room quickly most likely saved my life. And now I gratefully carry a “stent” card in my wallet. Wish it was good for a discount at CVS…
In my previous blog, The Yellow Light, I mentioned how heredity is not on my side. Heart disease is a smoldering flame in the trunk of my family tree. Here are other risk factors that lead to heart disease:
Smoking. I never smoked because I’m a freaking Girl Scout. But my father loved his cigars and pipes so I grew up in a biosphere of gunky haze. Then I sang in piano bars–dives and fancy joints galore that reeked of Marlboro’s and Virginia Slim’s. So there’s that…
And imagine all those years working in assorted boozy watering holes and I don’t even drink alcohol. But I gulped down enough glasses of “I-wanna-buy-her-a-drink” cranberry juice to pee pink.
Speaking of sugar… Okay I’m knocking off the honey that I slop on almost everything and am eating more veggies and less meaty stuff. Integrative medicine researchers are pointing their fingers at inflammation as one of the culprits in heart disease (and a whole lot of other ailments too). Sugar is deadly. So is obesity. And stress. Anyone out there stressed?
High blood pressure is really bad news in Cardio Land. Like most people, I didn’t have symptoms and went through my day blissfully unaware of the thumping and banging inside. Now I pop a couple pills and check my BP every morning with a cuff I bought at Costco. As a woman who is going through this right now, here is my advice. DON’T MESS AROUND WITH HYPERTENSION.
Yes I am back on the exercise bandwagon. Many of my friends “walked” themselves through the pandemic. They invited me along. I wish I had said “yes.” But I got way too comfortable sitting in front of the computer playing Zoom. And Sleep. What’s that?
Then there’s the social network thing. I think it’s risky business NOT to have someone or better yet, a community of someones, who keep you warm and safe in their embrace. Online, in person, whatever. I picture myself skipping along a yellow-brick road of humanity. From my dearest dear ones to the perfect stranger who shares a smile with me in line at Trader Joes… anywhere I can make a heart connection is a little slice of heaven for me and I feel loved back to sanity for another day.
So when I look at the list of lifestyle changes, post heart attack, there’s room for improvement, but mostly I’ve been doing okay. So I ask my cardiologist “what is the most important thing I can do now?”
TAKE THE PILL
He laughs and shakes his head at the irony of this. Of course it all helps–eating healthy, moving my ass, turning off the cable news…and so on. But when it comes to my innards, the plaque is here to stay and what we are trying to do, from now on, is keep it from getting worse. I have to control my cholesterol with a daily pill.
My doctor adds, somewhat cheerfully, that I am healthier today than I was the day before my heart attack. Well yeah, I’ve got this stent... But NOW I KNOW what’s going on so I can sort through my choices and take the best path forward. After her heart attack, one of my friends quit her job in the corporate world to pursue more creative endeavors. “How’d the resignation go?” I asked. “They feel bad that I’m leaving.” Then she smiled as big as a rainbow and said “let them feel bad.” A heart attack is a wake-up call but it’s also a fierce gift — the kind that shatters your compass. Then helps you build a new one.
Speaking of choices… Something had to go for me too. My first paid gig was in 1976 so you do the math. I am a working musician, through and through. My fellow musician friends and I have been living in our own “gig society” long before it became part of the popular lexicon. When the gigs came, I grabbed them. Last year was no exception. I worked 375 gigs (that would be shows and classes combined). I was exhausted and obviously nefarious things were percolating under the hood. Plenty of people were plenty concerned but nothing and no one got through to me. It took an effing Widow Maker to get my attention. I quit my gigs.
The grand adventure continues. Cardiac Rehab! Picture a cozy little gym. With nurses. And heart monitors. After my hour workout, I go home and take a nap. I have committed to all 24 sessions. That’s a lot of naps…
To be continued…
I’m not doing gigs but I’m still teaching. If you would like to learn the ukulele and play with The CC Strummers on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings, please check the Zoom Page on my website. Email me personally so I can add you to the elist and send you the login information.