a man with bright colors radiating out of his chest to show a heart attack

Coronary Artery Disease, Part II: You’ve Had a Heart Attack, Mr. Jones

Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part series. The first is "Coronary Artery Disease, Part I: We Have a Problem."

When I learned that I had Coronary Artery Disease in the summer of 2010, I started to think about retiring from my job as a high school principal. I had a stent, I was on full-time medication for the first time in my life, and the stress of the job was beginning to catch up with me. I was sixty-one, and recently two men I knew around my age had died from sudden heart attacks.

A new and wonderful life

I talked to my wife, we looked at our finances, I consulted with a representative of my union to calculate my pension, and we decided we would be fine if I retired. I made my intentions known to my school district in early 2011, I had no more heart problems during the school year, and I closed the door to my office for the last time in June. My career in public education was over, but a new and wonderful life was beginning.

I became more active, changed my diet (no more cafeteria pizza raids, doughnuts, and candy dish temptations), lost 15 pounds (new wardrobe!), started traveling more often, and felt enormous relief at no longer having to run a mid-sized high school. My heart check-ups were good.

Like climbing a sand dune

One of my favorite activities is to hike and backpack in the Eastern Sierra. In the late summer of 2012, I went on two trips that took me to high altitude: one, day-hiking with my wife; the other, overnight backpacking with a friend.

The first trip went well, but on the second trip I found myself struggling to reach our goal, summiting Royce Peak at 13253’. I didn’t experience any pain, but my legs were heavy, my breathing was out of rhythm, I felt like I was climbing a sand dune. I made it to the top, but it was no fun. Did I think it had anything to do with my heart condition? Of course not!

Are you alright?

On September 29th, 2012, little more than two weeks after my Royce Peak experience, I was having coffee with friends at a downtown café on a Saturday morning, when suddenly I felt as if someone was standing behind me, arms wrapped around my chest, squeezing until I had difficulty breathing. It didn’t last long, so I shook it off, but then it happened again.

At first, I didn’t say anything, but then a friend looked at me and asked if I was alright. I told him what had happened, and the next thing I knew we were on the way to my house to tell my wife I needed to go to the emergency room.

Mr. Jones, you've had a heart attack

I’m fortunate to live less than a mile from a hospital that specializes in cardiac care. I received immediate attention when I told admissions at the ER about my symptoms, and after a variety of tests, a cardiologist gave me the news. “Mr. Jones, you’ve had a heart attack.” It was the first of two major shoulder slumping statements I’ve heard from doctors. A few years later it was, “Mr. Jones, you have cancer,” but that’s another story.

Luckily for me, my heart attack was considered mild. An angiogram revealed another blocked artery, the circumflex, and another stent was installed. Before long I was back to normal activity. Seven years have gone by without another incident. At sixty-seven I added rock climbing to my outdoor activities, and just before my seventy-first birthday, in October, a dream came true: I climbed for three days in Yosemite with my oldest son.

I am in excellent heart health

I feel very fortunate that neither my heart problems nor, later, my cancer diagnosis, radically altered my life style, or worse. I’m proud of the fact that I take pretty good care of myself, and that my weight is the same as when I ran track in college.

I just had my annual check-up with my cardiologist. I am in excellent heart health. I’ve lived eight years longer than my grandfather, but I have seven more to go to equal my father’s longevity. He and I were always very competitive. Right now, I like my chances of beating him.

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