Feeling lucky

| May 20, 2010

“Mr. Clark, you’ve had a heart attack.”

Whoa! Those aren’t words anyone looks forward to hearing from a doctor. It can’t be. I run 25 miles per week. It’s not fair. Fair? He was telling me and not my widow. Alright, I’ll settle.

OK! It was not a heart attack. On Sunday night that is what they told me. That is what they thought. I had troponin in my blood. When that happens, they immediately treat it as a heart attack. In reality it was an angina event with a troponin leakage. God gave me a wake up call, and I listened. Yeah, he had been giving me subtle hints for a few weeks. They didn’t work. So he hit me a little harder.

Looking back, I knew something was wrong. I was working hard, but on the longer runs I was tiring. Just two weeks ago, I had run 4 miles in 34:30 without much trouble. It was the longer runs that were getting me. In December I had run 18 miles on a treadmill in 3 hours and 3 minutes. In April I was having a lot of trouble completing the same distance in 3 hours and 15 minutes. That was God’s subtle hint: There is something wrong.

On Sunday Morning I lined up to run a marathon. I was nervous. For weeks, I had been telling everyone I was going to start training for 5ks after this. That my marathon training had not been going well because I had become bored with it. The truth is that my performance had been worsening for weeks. I couldn’t figure it out.  It was not just a mental rut. I had a doctor’s appointment set up for the next day.

It started out fine. I hit the 5-mile mat in 55:04. We should have been 54:30, but no big deal. I was with a pace setter. As we approached the 6-mile point I was tiring with more than 20 miles to go. That’s a big deal. At the 6.2 mile point we hit the highlight refreshment stop at the baptist church. I am not Baptist, but they pull out all the stops on Marathon Sunday. They have Gatorade, water, oranges, bananas, homemade cookies, bands, choirs and spirit to share. I was tired, and it’s uphill there. We topped the hill near the 7-mile marker. There you can see for more than a mile. The road is clogged with runners. It is an amazing sight.

At the 8-mile point I was struggling to keep up with the pace group and let them go. It was another uphill, and I decided to walk it. I wasn’t recovering. Over the next mile or so I debated dropping out. It was not my day, and I would drop. At the 10-mile point I phoned my wife to tell her to stay at Lambeau and not go to the 20-mile marker to cheer. I walked the 3 miles back to the stadium. I was sad and frustrated, and I tore off my number. Roxanne was worried. My wife is a perfect match for me. She is a special education teacher and an EMT.

Roxanne insisted we go to the hospital. I was too weak to argue. I started to worry a bit when she stepped on it. She has EMT lights in her car but did not turn those on. That would have really scared me. When we arrived she rushed up to the counter and told them that I was having chest pains. I hadn’t even sat down before they were grabbing me and taking me in. I’m a trucker. I expected to wait. They hooked me up to everything. I was a flippin’ pin cushion. My BP was 179/98. They shoved nitro under my tongue. That rocked me. My BP dived, and I was shaking, freezing and wanting to throw up. I was too dehydrated to do that. It took about 15 minutes to stabilize me. It wasn’t pretty.

Then the ER doctor talked to me. He explained what was going on. My EKG was fine. The first blood test showed no elevated troponin. That’s good. Sometimes troponin takes a few hours to show up, and they were going to keep me overnight. We discussed Jim Fixx, author of the best selling book The Complete Book of Running. Fixx had a fatal heart attack while running. The doctor asked if I had read the Chris McDougall book Born to Run. I had listened to it twice. This always drives Roxanne nuts. I will stop anytime, anywhere to talk about running. She cut us both off to ask what was going on.

After they admitted me another the nurse said that she had just run her first half marathon that morning and finished in 2 hours and 10 minutes. It would have been faster, if not for those two Porta Potty breaks. We started talking about her race strategy especially her hydration. She had to get up at 4 a.m. to make it in and get lined up. She had a Mountain Dew when she woke up. There’s your problem, I told her. So we talked about running while smoke came out of Roxanne’s ears.

The hospitalist (admitting doctor) came in to talk to me. He brought up Jim Fixx. We talked about marathon running and heart health. He had read a study that said marathon runners were not necessarily any more heart healthy than 5k runners. Of course, the marathon wears on everything. You get just as tired running a 400m race as a marathon, cardio wise. Either one, you go all out. In a marathon, though, everything else will break down too.

A few hours later he came back in unexpectedly, and he did not look happy. “Mr. Clark we found elevated troponin levels in your blood,” he said.

“You mean I had a heart attack.”

“Yes, Mr. Clark you had a heart attack.”

A few hours later the cardiologist came and talked with me. He told me what was going to happen tomorrow. He explained the angiogram process. He told me that I could never run again. I argued. He said, “Well, you’re not going to run tonight. We’ll see what we find in the morning.”

The nurses wheeled me down to the angiogram room. You guessed it. One of them ran his first half marathon Sunday. We talked about it. He said he ran a 2:04. I said pretty good, just under 9:30 pace. He proudly said yes. Another of the nurses was going to be running his first 5k in a couple of weeks, and he was excited and picking my brain. I went into old sage runners’ mold and talked to him. By the time the cardiologist walked in we were in full blown conversations about running. You have to know that Cardiologists are like rock stars. When they walk in the room, everything else stops.

The angiogram procedure is remarkable. They can see everything. The whole time the patient is conscious. The cardiologist was explaining everything as we explored my arteries.

“Mr. Clark you did not have a heart attack. Your heart and your main arteries are great. There is less than 5 percent blockage in all of your main arteries. The problem lies in two diagonal arteries that are 60-70 percent clogged. What is happening is that after an hour or so they constrict. That is where the problem comes in.”

“Do you mean that I can run?”

“Yes, just don’t run for more than an hour.”

“Do you mean that I can run, say 8 miles in an hour?”

“No, take it easy don’t run more than 5 miles.”

“Why not?”

He told me about Jim Fixx, Sudden Death. OK, 5 miles, but I can still run. If you didn’t run you might have had a heart attack 10 years ago.

I learned a lesson. Don’t hesitate to get checked.  You have unexplained chest pain. See a doctor. The DOT has an absolutely asinine mandate. They say that a driver is suspended for 60 days if he has a heart attack. There is no way that the government should do anything to keep us from seeing a doctor, especially in a life threatening situation. We need to fight this.

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