a heart shaped island with a runner on top and cracks under water

Coronary Artery Disease, Part I: We Have a Problem

Editor's note: This is part 1 of a series. Be sure to check out part 2!

My paternal grandfather died of heart failure in 1964 when he was sixty-three. My father died of heart failure in 1999 when he was seventy-eight. Both of them were overweight, they both drank more than was healthy, and my grandfather smoked at least a pack a day of Pall Malls for over forty years. On the maternal side, my grandfather, born in 1887, lived to be eighty-seven and my grandmother, born in 1889, lived to be one-hundred-and-four.

Inherited heart problems

Whose genes did I inherit? How much would lifestyle influence my likelihood of having heart problems? Born in 1948, I didn’t entertain those thoughts when I was young, so tobacco and alcohol were part of my life, the former until I was thirty; the latter until my mid-forties. But I was never overweight and I exercised: distance running, hiking, backpacking at high altitude and team sports. Physically, I thought of myself as an O’Neill, my mother’s maiden name, not a Jones. No premature heart problems for me.

Feeling dizzy and breathless on my runs

My career as, first, a high school English teacher, and then as a high school principal, was demanding, especially my nine years as a principal. I knew that stress could contribute to heart issues, but I was enough of an old school person to think that stress was something that others experienced, not me. My weight was good, my cholesterol and blood pressure were good and my resting heartbeat under 60. No problem.

Toward the end of the 2009-10 schoolyear, my seventh as principal and a particularly difficult one, I felt unusual fatigued. I struggled on runs that were usually easy for me. My legs felt heavy, my breathing shallow. Walking up steps sometimes led to dizziness and shortness of breath. I was sixty-one, looking forward to summer and some relief from long hours and constant demands.

Getting the help I needed

In early July I attended a conference in San Antonio. While walking to the Alamo Dome with some friends, climbing a short flight of stairs, I suddenly felt very dizzy and breathless. I reached out and grabbed a friend’s elbow for support. By coincidence, his wife was the head nurse in the ER of our hometown hospital that specializes in cardiac care. David said, “I’m calling Julie right now.” Julie said, “If it happens again, go to the hospital. If not, see your doctor as soon as you return.”

I scheduled an appointment with my family doctor. He did an EKG, and for the first time in my life I saw that “look” on a doctor’s face, followed by, “We’ve got a problem.” I made an appointment with a cardiologist, had an x-ray, took a stress test, and in short order, I was scheduled for an angioplasty.

Two blocked arteries

Two blocked arteries were discovered, including the left anterior descending, also known as the “widowmaker.” In recent years I’d known three men who died almost instantly from heart attacks due to blockage in that artery. A stent was installed in the LAD, but the location of the second blockage made it difficult to stent. I immediately started taking an 81mg aspirin and an 80mg statin, Lipitor, per day.

I felt lucky that I had symptoms that got me to a doctor before a heart attack killed me. My cardiologist assured me that they had fixed the problem and that medication, proper diet and exercise would protect me. I returned to work with a story that had a happy ending. I didn’t know at the time that a second chapter would soon be written.

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