Change of Heart
“Don’t tread on me, for I am your brother. I was born with an American Heart”
This is the work of a third party and may not reflect the views and opinions of Kinetic Syndicate
Let me first say these words illustrate an example of what not to do. I survived a series of traumatic events that have forever shaped my life. The life I knew will never be the same and my current life is not even close to what it was. I wore myself out to the point of near death and stress was the catalyst. If you were to tell me a year ago that meditation, sunrises, surfing and music would be my primary methods for stress management and cigarettes and alcohol would be permanently erased, I’d probably ask you to step outside and throw hands. Veteran and Military culture prides itself in the work hard, play harder mentality. We do and have done stressful things. Everyone wasn’t kicking doors and jumping out of helicopters. And that is OK. It’s OK to be in a support role and discounting yourself and your service creates insecurity and stress. Grifter touched on this before when he mentioned the hypothetical guy in Motor T in a porta-jon, inside the wire and the porta-jon beside his gets hit with a mortar. Yeah he was a POG, but does that discount his experience?
My experience is NOT combat related. Like everyone else, my job and service created stress. I lived the work hard, play harder mentality. I’d have a bad day at work and just tie one on until I was speaking in cursive. Problem solved right? My 20 year off and on smoking habit of going from a pack of V8 Red tops to one smoke a day was catching up. I was smoker but never considered myself one because I felt like I could control it. Yet looking back, I was still a smoker. My drinking was ever increasing. From binging out in foreign countries in my twenties to having a low ball of bourbon in the evenings in my thirties. Over the last 20 years, this is how I handled stress. I was active. I stayed active and because of this I felt I could eat whatever I wanted. At 35 years old and a family history of cancer I ate like I was going to die of that in my 80s. I was wrong.
July 10th 2017 was a normal evening. I grilled a steak, cooked a box of Velveeta Shells and Cheese and heated up a can of green beans (had to get a vegetable in there…). I poured my normal low ball glass of Eagle Rare Bourbon that was not really a low ball. It was five to six ounces with a single big ice cube. Half a bottle a day was maintenance for me. I was drinking two or three of these pours daily. This was how I managed life and the stresses it caused. I smoked at work and drank at home. Around 10 PM I poured my night cap and knocked it down in a timely manner. Thirty- minutes later I started to get heartburn. This wasn’t unusual. I ate like shit, so heartburn was a everyday occurrence. All night long I was up eating TUMS and nothing would work.
The next day the symptoms increased to chest pain radiating down my left arm, underneath my shoulder blade radiating up my neck. As a first responder of nearly twenty years, you’d think I was able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack in myself, but I still thought it was heartburn. It would never be me right? I was young and healthy. My blood work taken the day before was perfect for a 35 year old male. I ended up in the emergency room. I argued with the order to go and scoffed when my supervisor asked if I could drive myself. As I was driving myself to the hospital, my left arm was getting weaker and I was unable to hold the steering wheel with it because the chest pain it caused.
Once at the hospital, they did a work up for a cardiac event and I protested. Triaged in the Emergency Room the Doctor entered my room and sat down. She wouldn’t even look at me. At this point, I did not know what to expect. Her expression said all the wrong things and she didn’t want to be the one that delivered the bad news. She told me I was having a heart attack. Holy shit! What the fuck are you talking about?! The staff scheduled a transport to a different hospital with invasive cardiac capabilities. During my heart catheterization, they found TWO blockages in my Left Anterior Descending Artery. They weren’t big enough for stents but nonetheless I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Two days later I was scheduled for a Nuclear Stress test. My case was so interesting to the cardiac team because there were absolutely no symptoms leading up to this. This heart attack was out of the blue and without warning.
The morning of the 13th I woke up with some chest discomfort. I was receiving a series of blood thinning shots in my stomach every six hours. Every four hours I would get an EKG. I was also wearing a heart monitor the hospital staff had visual of in the nurse’s station. My chest is hurting again. It’s worse than before. The nurse enters my room to administer an EKG. I’m hoping it sets off an alarm or code to indicate something is wrong. I’m hoping if something is really going on the heart monitor will set off an alarm. Surely, I wouldn’t be having a second heart attack and if I was, surely one of these machines would pop off. Nothing made a sound.
It’s squeezing now. My breath is labored and with every exhale I feel the pressure of air being forced from my lungs. Each inhale is getting shallower and shallower. My left hand is tingling. Why aren’t alarms going off? I’m wearing a fucking heart monitor. I call the nurse and she gives me a nitroglycerin tablet. There is instant relief of chest pain, but the side effects of the nitro are painful. It’s all happening so fast….. A nurse comes to my room with a wheel chair to take me to my Nuclear Stress Test.
I’m in the imaging machine now for pictures of my heart before the test. My chest pain is still there but it’s not as bad. My head hurts and my body aches from the nitro. The Physician’s Assistant comes to me and informs me I’m having another heart attack. My morning EKG showed ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI) or massive heart attack. The hospital activated Code STEMI and the ball was rolling. The cardiac staff comes in and rips me from the imaging machine and puts the AED paddles on my chest. They AED energized the AED and I hear it go through the start-up process. WTF is going on? I’m scared. The staff won’t let me move because apparently I was on the verge of cardiac arrest. They’re running me in a wheelchair down the hall back to the heart catheter lab. The nurses training had kicked in and they were in no mood joke around.
The Cath Lab was cold. The steel table was cold. There was a mattress type thing that was form fitted to keep patients still. I just remember how cold it was. I felt like the pig being dissected in middle school biology. Everyone was in rescue mode and there was a lot of communication like in an episode of ER. There was a sharp pain in the top of right leg. They were going in. I was still sore from the first heart catheterization. It didn’t matter, my femoral artery was the best entry point to save my life. I looked down and saw the Cardiologist hands passing the wire hand over hand into my leg. It hurt so bad…. I looked over to my left and see a MASSIVE screen and there plain as day is the blockage. Then I faded out.
I woke up in Cardiac ICU with a catheter sticking out of my leg and another blood thinning shot in my stomach. WTF just happened? I just survived my second heart attack in 3 days and now I have a stent in my Left Anterior Descending Artery. Did I really almost just die? What are the things I wished I did before this point? Who should I have called to apologize to? My career is presumed to be over since Coronary Disease is a disqualifying factor for service. It was fun while it lasted. Now what…..
Leading up to these events, I lived my life like there were no consequences. I ate whatever I wanted and drank whatever and as much as I wanted. I was young and nothing could happen to me. I was good for at least 20 more years right? WRONG. I managed stress and anxiety in the absolute worst possible ways. Laying in ICU, I gained a little perspective and realized the problems I face aren’t solved in a bottle, at a Wendy’s or in a pack of smokes. I didn’t think I had a problem until I quit. I quit it all on July 11th 2017. It took two to three months to get to a point where I wasn’t consumed by anger. I just wanted a drink or a smoke or a big greasy cheeseburger. Something to make me feel like it’s going to be ok. My life was over. The 16 pills I have to take every day are forever and I’ll never go back to sea.
My life will never be the same so what can I do to manage my stress and anxiety in a way that won’t kill me. My cardiac rehab program taught me how to eat clean and it taught me how to manage stress through yoga and meditation. It taught me the importance of mental health and how it should be more of a priority instead of like riding a moped. “It’s only cool when no one is looking.”
Would you ever go talk to a therapist? “I would never go. It would never be an option.” Sometime last August after another hospitalization and a third heart catheterization, I was cornered by my wife and twin sister to go see a professional. I was apprehensive. I was scared of what I’d say and how it would be perceived. What I found was it was one of the best experiences in my journey. Having a third party to bounce things off without judgement was tremendously beneficial. It became a sounding board with someone to just sit and listen to me and my thoughts. I still go. If you’ve thought about it, try it. Having a person to vent to is worth it’s weight in gold.
Would you ever meditate? “NO. Not only no, but FUCK NO. What do I look like? A liberal snowflake pussy?” Oh yeah? Have you tried it? Meditation doesn’t have to be what you perceive it to be. Twenty minutes can feel like eight hours of quality sleep. A year into this journey, I’m still figuring it out but I can tell you this; you don’t know unless you try it. If you can’t sleep or have trouble staying asleep, try doing 10 second breaths. 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. Focus on your breath. Become aware of your body. Count the seconds in your breath. Focus. I do this every morning because I wake up around 230 or 3 and it’s how I get my thoughts to slow down. There are apps available too. Calm is one I use and there’s another one called Headspace that’s pretty good as well. I also downloaded a 45 minute thunderstorm on iTunes. Every now and again, I’ll put my headphones on and just listen to that.
How else can you manage stress? “I drink my problems away…..” Military and Veteran culture has cultivated bad habits that we almost have an expectation of doing. Wake up and
light a cigarette or pour a stiff drink or three to finish you off for the day. I’ve found when I eliminated those things and started actually being more “present” my quality of life improved and my stress and anxiety decreased. I’m only speaking for myself here but I’m very fortunate to live near the beach. At least three to four times a week, I try to get to the beach thirty minutes before sunrise. Yeah that’s early, but that’s how I want to start my day. I want to start my day with my own little “church service” at the beach during sunrise. If there is surf, I’ll paddle out and take it all in. If not, I’ll take a walk with a cup of coffee and mark turtle nest. Doing this has put some fulfillment in my life and allows me to sleep and live a good clean lifestyle. It works for me. Getting out and exposing myself to nature and appreciating my surroundings is advantageous to my mental health.
I feel fortunate to still be here. I’ve been dubbed “The Miracle” at the hospital since there’s a very high mortality rate for what I experienced. Now what? I want to help as many people as possible so they don’t have to experience what I did. Your body will eventually give out if you don’t take care of yourself. No one cares about you more than you. Find ways to manage your life in a healthy way. Learn to play a guitar, catch a sunrise or a sunset, read a good book or try some simple breathing techniques. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but find something to bring peace in your life. Don’t do it for “likes”. Do it for you. I’m 36 now and I am going to have coronary disease until I die. Yeah that’s too young, but fuck it. I’ll drink lemonade all day long.
As OAF stated in their earlier days.
Push yourself, Know your worth, and Embrace your capabilities.