Becoming A Heart Attack Expert

It was autumn 1991: “I know this is uncomfortable, dearie, but it’s still a lot better than the Black and Decker through the sternum.”

The Straub Clinic nurse was shaving the hair from my right groin in preparation for the angioplasty procedure that would thread a catheter through the artery from my groin to my heart, positioning an inflatable balloon into my arteries at the points of the two relatively minor (80 percent and 50 percent) blockages in the arteries on the surface of my heart, which were causing angina pain while jogging. The inflated balloon would press the plaque against the inner surfaces of the artery, restoring an open pathway for blood to flow.

“Black and Decker” was the far more serious alternative to angioplasty – opening up the chest to expose the heart to graft viens from my leg to actually bypass the blockages.

But the angioplasty wasn’t going well. The plaque wasn’t staying out of the way when the balloon was removed. The cardiologist was getting more frustrated. “OK, Mr. Coffee, I’m gonna leave the balloon inflated as long as you can stand the pain. Tell me the pain on a scale of one to 10; here we go.”

“Five … Seven … Eight … Twel …” Suddenly my blood-starved heart went into spasmodic fibrillation … warning horns from the monitors … the room went to General Quarters. I was aware of electric-shock paddles on my chest: “Clear!” WHAM! … “Clear!” WHAM! Then my heart picked up its normal rhythm and things calmed down.

“I’m sorry, but when we have an emergency like that during angioplasty, our protocol calls for immediate bypass surgery.” As that was still sinking in, I thought, “Well, crap! The Black and Decker after all.”

So while feeling like I’d been blindsided by “protocol” (I had none of the regular precursors of heart disease: family history, smoker, high blood pressure or cholesterol, overweight), I went from an otherwise very healthy specimen to a couple of weeks of recovering from what felt like being run over by a 16-wheeler.

Since then I’ve been struck by three more heart attacks: one in July 2002 when I simply awakened one morning having a heart attack, which was resolved by a successful angioplasty at Queen’s, and another one in July 2006 while in San Angelo, Texas, the morning after conducting a memorial service for my mother-inlaw. That one resulted in another “Black and Decker through the sternum” – a quadruple bypass.

The fourth, and most recent, occurred earlier this month while on a trip to speak in Lubbock, Texas, and hang out with kids and grandkids in California and Fort Worth.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, we were in American Airlines’ Admirals Club at Dallas-Fort Worth airport to catch our return flight to Honolulu when I felt a heart attack coming on with chest pain, clamminess and lightheadedness. I almost passed out but didn’t, so I was able to hear the EMT crew working over me and my wife Susan’s encouragement in the ambulance. The ER cardiologist’s comments to Susan about my chances were not optimistic.

Nevertheless, he was able to unblock the right descending artery of my heart, install a stent and send me to the ICU with more optimism than when he’d started. This one hit me harder than any of the previous three, but we’re re-evaluating priorities (again) and I’m on the path to recovery.

Over the years, VA doctors have determined several infirmities common to returned POWs and directly attributable to that experience, not the least of which is my personal nemesis, atherosclerosis (artery disease).

After this last episode, a friend offered, “You used one life in that high-speed ejection over Vietnam, another one in the mock firing squad after your capture, you’ve survived four heart attacks, so, hey, I guess you still have three lives to go.”

I’ll take ’em!