Guest Blog by Jeffrey Wolf, Content Writer for Homewatch International, Inc.
I was the youngest person there by at least 20 years, possibly by 40 – that’s what the nurses told me my third day in. At 25, I was among the youngest adult patients admitted to the cardiac wing of the hospital in a long time. A man in his 20s shouldn’t need cardiac care and shouldn’t have a heart attack. For several days, the doctors even danced around the term “heart attack,” saying they needed more tests to be sure.
But yes, I’d had a heart attack while lying on my bed reading the latest “Harry Potter” novel. I wasn’t your typical cardiac patient. I wasn’t an 80-year-old man in need of elder care, I wasn’t morbidly obese (although I was overweight), I didn’t have high blood pressure, and I didn’t smoke or take recreational drugs. My heart attack happened because I had a very rare illness as a baby called Kawasaki disease. I believe I was the 47th case in the country. In 50 percent of patients, Kawasaki causes cardiac problems later in life. So by the flip of a coin, my heart suddenly sped up on a July afternoon and I finished the new Harry Potter book that night in a hospital bed.
While I am decades younger than other cardiac patients, many things are the same. I take many of the same medications and I have an internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD) in my chest. The medications and my condition mean I have to eat a different diet. The blood thinners mean I can’t have too much vitamin K – the vitamin found in green, leafy vegetables. While I can eat asparagus, broccoli and spinach, I can’t overdo it. If I do, I get a splitting headache. It could also cause uncontrolled bleeding or even a stroke. It’s the same with alcohol, because that also manipulates what blood thinners do. While I miss having a drink with friends, the headache isn’t worth the booze.
Additionally, I have four stents in my heart. These little lattice-work cylinders keep an artery open and blood flowing properly. The blood thinners ensure the red blood cells don’t get caught and cause a blockage. I also take blood pressure medication, so I have to avoid foods high in salt. One of my favorite things to eat in the world is chips and salsa. But I don’t buy chips anymore because of the sodium. I sometimes indulge myself at Mexican restaurants, but I avoid the chip aisle at the grocery store.
When I got out of the hospital I went through cardiac rehab for several weeks. I wasn’t allowed to drive during that time, so friends and family drove me there three or four times a week. One time I took the bus. Several of the others in cardiac rehab also took public transportation, but I could tell it put stress on them. At the start of each class, old men surrounded me as technicians hooked up heart monitors to our chests. Then we’d exercise while they monitored us. Some of the men struggled and could barely go above a shuffle as we all built up our stamina. It wasn’t just the old men who had trouble. A heart attack, like any sort of heart disease, drains you. For weeks afterward I got tired very easily.
As we walked on our treadmills, the techs played videos about cardiac health, showing us what to do if something went wrong. Have nitroglycerin ready; make sure you take all your medications; eat well and exercise. It was stuff you always hear on TV, but now I was just like these old men, a very depressing realization. I found myself dwelling on the things I couldn’t do any more and the new limitations on my life because my body failed me. It didn’t help that some of the men in the class were on their second or even third time around. Is this what lay in store for me? I was only 25, not 85.
When you feel this way, you want to rely on friends and family, but the heart attack hurts them as well. My parents were fits of worry – my mom paced when I was around and my father couldn’t sleep. My friends shrugged awkwardly and didn’t know what to say. Many people around me treated me like glass.
I eventually got out of my funk and I am very happy now. The medications help keep me healthy and I exercise daily. But I still think about the old men who walked beside me on the treadmills. I was a young man and my friends weren’t 85 and sick like me. My family hadn’t moved out of town. What’s it like for the older heart patients who don’t have that type of support system? Now that I work for Homewatch CareGivers, I know that we can create a circle of support for those older people so they don’t have to recover alone.
A heart attack doesn’t stop when they stabilize your heartbeat in the emergency room. You always remember it and it changes how you live. You have a scar on your chest and a pill case in your pocket. You feel lonely, even if you have friends and family around who can help. But what if you don’t have that? It’s important to know there are trained caregivers who can help, giving you what you don’t even know you need. Seven years ago, my life changed on a Saturday in July when all I wanted to do was read how Harry Potter overcame his next challenge. It changes for heart patients every day, but it’s not something you have to face alone.
Jeffrey Wolf is the Content Writer for Homewatch International, Inc. in Denver, Colorado.