I knew my genetics sucked, but I thought that somehow I would avoid my family’s scourge of heart disease. For twenty-plus years I jogged regularly until arthritis slowed me down to a brisk walk. For most of those twenty years, I did not eat too much unhealthy food—but unfortunately that had changed lately, with too many trips to the fast food joints. For years sudden exertion had made me breathless, but since I could walk at a brisk pace for 45 minutes on a treadmill I thought my shortness of breath was from getting older. Last month woke me up big time—I felt chest pain on exertion. I passed a stress test with flying colors in June, so the cardiologist thought my problem had to be something other than heart disease. I had to be sure, so I hooked myself up to my portable EKG, got on the treadmill, and started walking, keeping an eye out for the S-T segment depression that would reveal a lack of oxygen to the heart muscle. It did not take long for that to happen—within three minutes there was deep S-T depression. I stopped and foolishly waited for my wife to get home. I did not reveal any alarm in my voice, so she told me to call the doctor’s office to talk with a nurse (this was in the evening, and the office had a nurse manning the phone). The nurse told me to get to the ER immediately, so Karen took me to Cape Fear Valley Hospital in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I was seen. All the tests came out normal—EKG, cardiac enzymes, and the rest of the blood work, though my bad cholesterol was too high and my good cholesterol was too low. I showed the EKG to a cardiac physician assistant, who had enough doubts to get the staff to admit me to the chest pain unit. This was on a Sunday, and Monday I chilled out with a heparin drip and waited for the angiogram scheduled for Tuesday. The cardiologist did not expect to find anything other than, perhaps, small vessel disease which is treated medicinally. I remember how cold the room was where the test was done and the skipping of my heart (probably a short run of ventricular tachycardia) when the dye was injected. It took only seconds for the doctor to say, “You have three major blockages: a 99% blockage in the right coronary artery, a 75-80% blockage in the “widowmaker” (the left anterior descending [LAD] coronary artery), and a 50% blockage in one of the circumflex arteries. Initially the doctor wanted to do bypass, but I told them when my mother had bypass surgery all her bypasses failed. The doctors ran the statistics, and stents vs. coronary bypass had about equal results. Of course I chose stents. The first stent was put in later that day (Tuesday afternoon) in the right coronary artery. The doctor was brilliant in cutting through hard calcium with the “roto-rooter” to clean out the artery. He had great difficulty, and I think any other doctor would have given up, but Dr. Daka is an extremely skilled interventional cardiologist, and I thank God for his fine work. My chest hurt for about thirty minutes, and my body went into mild shock, causing me to sweat through my pillow. The right side of my heart had adjusted to low oxygen, and with the vessel open it asked, “Where the hell is all this oxygen coming from?”

The second stent was put in on Thursday. It was much easier to place, and I slept through most of the procedure. I returned home Friday to rest and allow my arm and groin to heal. After I was able to walk, I found that I could handle sudden exertion. I could walk up the stairs at the university at which I teach without getting out of breath. I feel so much better.

I am grateful most of all to God for working with the doctors and nurses to save my life. Dr. Daka and the staff at Cape Fear Valley Hospital were excellent, and even the hospital food was good. There was no heart damage, and my ejection fraction is a high normal of 60-65%. I have made major changes in my diet and exercise for an hour almost every day on my treadmill. As of today I have lost 24 pounds. So many things had to work out perfectly to get me into the chest pain unit, to get the cardiologist to order an angiogram, to get a master interventional cardiologist to do my stents, to avoid a myocardial infarction despite the 99% blockage. I was probably hours away from a major heart attack, and God spared me. My faith is stronger than before, and I thank God every day for saving my life.

Part II will deal with some of the emotional reactions I have had to living with heart disease, both positive and negative.