Never in my wildest imagination did I dream I'd have a massive heart attack. I know now that I'd been having symptoms, but was always in denial. I figured that since I've been on this planet for seven and a half decades, that it was normal to be short of breath easily. I figured I was doing the right thing to eat Tums and Rolaids for what I thought was simply recurring indigestion. I figured that since my Dad lived to be 93 and had open heart surgery at age 88, and recovered, that I had some good genes and wasn't at risk, at least for a while. I figured that since my diet was exclusively wild game and fish, I was eating correctly. I figured that since I've always been very physical, hunting big game in mountain country the last 40 years, I had plenty of exercise. Not to mention 25 to 30 cords of firewood I cut in the forest and split each year. Putting those all together, why should I be a candidate for a heart attack?
The symptoms started many years ago, possibly nine or ten, which fit with the explanation from my cardiologist. That's when he figured my heart problems might have begun. I can remember, on two occasions, around 2008, when I was simply walking with my cameraman to or from tree stands, when I suddenly felt totally fatigued. I had to stop and catch my breath several times. We were walking on the level, and it wasn't normal to have that feeling of weakness. Another time I was walking along an airport concourse, and my arms and legs suddenly felt like weights. I had to stop walking. I wasn't running to catch a plane, simply walking. I didn't understand what those symptoms stood for, and I blew them off as simply getting on in years. I never had chest pains. On yet another occasion I was fishing for stripers in the Chesapeake Bay. I hooked a fish and worked it to the boat. It wasn't a big fish as stripers go, maybe eight pounds, and it wasn't much of a fight. As I played that fish I was suddenly overcome with exhaustion, totally fatigued. I struggled to reel it in. I secretly wished I didn't have to catch another fish. For me, that's totally out of character. I fish for food.
During a visit to a doctor for a routine physical about 5 years ago, I discovered that my blood pressure was high. I was surprised. It was always normal. I went on meds, lost some weight, and my blood pressure was lower. I figured I didn't need the meds anymore and quit taking them. I absolutely despise taking pills, unless it's an aspirin or Advil for some pain. My doc left the clinic and took on an assignment at a hospital in Cody, and I never signed on with a new doc. So there I was, no physicals for years, no blood pressure meds, no idea what was going on in my body. Very dumb on my part.
I had more telling symptoms over the last year or more. Shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue, and slight chest discomfort. Never any chest pains. I wanted to believe this was all indigestion. I wanted to believe my blood pressure was ok, but down deep I knew it probably wasn't. When this indigestion discomfort occurred at night, I'd take Tums or Rolaids, and believed they were helping. Now I know I was in denial. I kept the Rolaids and Tums hidden around the house. I didn't want Madonna to know. She'd been trying to get me to get a routine physical for the last several years. Her suggestions fell on deaf ears. She had absolutely no clue what I was feeling.
In early August, a few months ago, I was on a mountain cutting firewood, alone. I cut enough to fit in my truck, and before loading it, I began working on a large log. I figured I'd cut it up and load it on my next trip. In the process of rolling the very heavy log with my peavey to access the bottom, I felt a strange discomfort in my chest. It was not like the others. Not a sharp pain, just a tightness. I immediately sat down, and in ten minutes I felt fine again, but I didn't load the truck. I drove off the mountain with an empty pickup. While driving I finally admitted to myself that something was very wrong. For the last couple years I was getting short of breath more easily. I was quickly fatigued. Lots of indigestion, especially at night. So, while driving home, I promised myself I'd go get a complete physical in November when all the summer and fall activities were over. I didn't want to mess up the upcoming schedule. All my kids and some family members were coming to Cody in mid-August to celebrate my 75th birthday. It was actually in November, but my three daughters are school teachers and a fall date during the school year wouldn't work. Also, I had drawn a Colorado bull elk tag, and looked forward to that hunt every year. It was an annual tradition, and one of my favorite out of state hunts. Finally, I had a bunch of pals coming to hunt with me for deer and antelope. They had been planning the trips for a long time. For all those reasons, I decided to see a doc when the hunts were over.
So, on the night of November 9th, my birthday, and all the hunters gone, the indigestion and chest tightness occurred again, and this time my right arm, from my wrist to my elbow, was hurting. It was time to see the doc. In the morning I nonchalantly told Madonna I was going to town to go see about that long awaited physical. She was happy, and told me not only was it about time, but I shouldn't have any trouble seeing a doc, since the clinic I used to go to takes walk-ins. There are several docs there. Before leaving, I told her I had the feeling I might be gone a few days. She was astonished, and asked what was going on. I didn't tell her about the arm pain, and told her it was probably indigestion. Her response was immediate. She told me to get in the car, and she'd be driving me to town.
On the way in, she asked again what I was feeling. When I described everything, including the arm pain, she reached into her purse, grabbed two aspirin, gave them to me, and told me to hold on. That 25 mile ride to town might have broken all records. She drove up to the emergency room door and I got out. She went to park the car. The receptionist inside asked what the problem was. All I said was chest pains. She went into action. In 10 seconds I was in a wheel chair, in 60 seconds I was on a bed in the ER. a quick EKG revealing nothing, but a blood test indicated from enzymes that I was having a heart issue. A nitroglycerine IV was put in one arm, another IV with blood thinner in the other. Soon afterward I was in an ambulance speeding for Billings, 100 miles away. I joked with the EMT who was watching the IV's and monitors that he should be looking for some big antelope since we were driving through one of my favorite hunting spots. Madonna had driven home to take the dogs to a kennel and grab some clothes.
At the Billings Clinic hospital, they wheeled me into the Cath Lab, where I was given an angioplasty. A wire was sent in through an artery in my wrist, two stents implanted, and balloons used to open vessels that were blocked or partially blocked. All the while I was awake, but a bit groggy. I felt absolutely nothing and in fact before and after the procedure I discussed elk hunting with members of the surgical team. When the procedure was over, I was told that I'd suffered a massive heart attack, and that I needed open heart surgery to correct three damaged vessels. A three way bypass was scheduled.
So now, I know that my denial over those years was simply that I refused to believe anything serious was wrong. But a cardiologist offered some enlightenment. He said the fact that I'd been very physical all my life probably deferred the attack for ten years or so. As far as my diet, he explained that even though fish and wild game was all I ate at home, my travel schedule negated that positive. I'd been on the road much of my life, some years, at the peak of my career, gone for 250 days or more annually. Between my seminar circuit and hunting expos and conventions in the winter, and hunting the rest of the year, I certainly wasn't eating "right". Too many restaurants and cafes and cheeseburgers, French fries, and even my beloved hot dogs.
And my blood pressure had been high over the last few years, which was another important factor. Now, I'm taking bucketfuls of meds, my blood pressure is happy, and I feel fine. Soon I'll be in the hospital, undergoing surgery by a skilled cardiovascular surgeon who has performed almost 3,000 open heart surgeries. And when that's done and I've awaited the appropriate time, I'm gonna have my eyeballs fixed and have cataract surgery. The cardiologist said one of his goals is to get me back up on the mountain next fall with more energy and stamina that I had when I was 50. I'll drink to that! Well, uh, maybe a cup of tea??
And by the way, sorry I'm lax about my blogs. Initially I intended to write one or two a week, but because of frequent fatigue, and poor vision because of my cataracts (I'm struggling to write this) I fell far behind. But that will all change soon. I'll have lots of time to sit around and heal, and write.
And please, if any of you have the discomforts I've described, please get a checkup. I was lucky. I had a warning, and given a second chance. So here I am, much wiser, and soon, with the grace of God, will be a lot healthier. Thank You, Lord