My Completely Mystifying Heart Attack Recovery

By | September 27, 2021

As I mentioned in this blog post on September 18, I had a mild heart attack sometime in the wee hours of September 13. I went in to the ER the following day (d’oh) and was promptly admitted, poked, prodded, and eventually catheterized before being discharged with three new prescriptions and a whole lot of follow-up appointments.

So: I am doing well.

Correction: I am doing really well.

It’s just plain strange, but within a day or two of being discharged, I stopped feeling any lingering pain in my chest, any excessive fatigue, any anything out of the ordinary. I got back to feeling pretty much 100%.

I went for a two-mile walk the day after I was discharged. I would have turned around if I’d felt even the slightest discomfort or warning sign. I think I might have been a little tired at the end, but never felt excessively weak or in pain. Otherwise, I was just fine.

I walked another mile on Saturday (there’s a story behind that one mile1On September 6, I was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the Richmond, Vermont town selectboard. The seat was open because of a resignation six months into a three year term. I will serve until Town Meeting in March 2022 at which point in time I’m welcome to run for the remaining two years of the term. One of the first things I had to do as part of my official duties was perform a ‘site visit’ of a Class IV road in our town, a road that exists on the maps but has become completely overgrown and all but invisible. The people abutting the “road” have petitioned for it to be officially discontinued. The “road” was only a half mile or so long but it was a bushwhack and a half., but again, felt fine afterward.

The following day, Sunday, people at church who’d heard about my heart attack were poleaxed to see me wandering right on in, none the worse for wear. After church, Carole had an English country dancing event to head out to and I had nothing better to do, so I had her drop me off at an intersection about seven miles from home. I walked on home from there via relatively quiet Vermont dirt roads. Amusingly, a couple of miles from home a passing car came to a stop and the very bewildered driver called out “Jay?”

I didn’t recognize the driver at first, but it turned out to be a member of our church whose husband had helped Carole by driving my car home from the hospital while I was an inpatient. Thus, she knew perfectly well that only three days earlier I’d been in the hospital for a heart attack. The last thing she expected, I’m sure, was to see me toddling down the shoulder toward her, not a care in the world. I assured her that I was taking breaks and making sure I felt okay, which I was, and I gave effusive thanks for the help she and her husband had given Carole with my car and everything. She seemed a little doubtful about me being out walking so soon after discharge, but I told her I was fine and we went on our separate ways.

I was completely prepared to wake up Monday morning regretting that seven mile walk on Sunday.

Nothin’. I felt fine.

I walked five more miles on Wednesday. On Saturday, I walked eleven miles and then went for an eight mile bicycle ride with Carole. I wore a Fitbit Versa 3 GPS-enabled fitness watch, which tracks my heart rate among other things, and the post-walk and post-ride heart rate plots showed I was never really laboring, never actually even getting up out of the base heart rate zone (well, except for the bicycle ride, because there’re a couple of hills along the route we took that do tax me a little bit).

As for my blood pressure — it’s been fantastic. It was fantastic the day I got home and it’s stayed fantastic. 112 over 79, stuff like that. Sometimes lower. Before the heart attack, before a change in my medications, my systolic blood pressure was rarely below 135. Without the medication I’d been on, it was usually over 150. Now it’s routinely in the 110-115 range. It’s almost surreal to sit down and take my blood pressure and see numbers like that after so many years of seeing the display turn an angry red or amber when the check completed. It’s also possible the Roto-Rooting the cath lab did made a difference by opening up key blood vessels.

I have been carefully tracking my sodium (2000 milligrams of sodium per day, max, which is slightly lower than the RDA of 2300 milligrams per day), saturated fat, and overall calories. I’m trying to lose weight to get down from my current weight of 220 pounds or so to a more reasonable 190-195. I had a “bwah!” moment a couple of days after my hospital discharge when my scale showed me weighing ten pounds less than I’d weighed a week earlier. All I can say is, one or more of my new meds must be a hell of a diurectic, or cutting sodium has worked wonders, or both, but either way, that big of a drop has to be a lot of water being shed.

I had intake for my cardiac rehab program this past week and I have a stress test scheduled for Tuesday morning. After that, I’ll start three-times-weekly cardiac rehab sessions… but as I’ve said to several people in the last few days, the cardiac rehab folks are going to be very confused by one of their new patients rattling off the miles and miles they’ve walked lately. I think part of rehab is walking on a treadmill while connected to an EKG, which makes sense, but otherwise, there’s a certain amount of humor in the idea of them saying “yeah, we need you up on the treadmill, got to get up out of your chair and get you exercising.” (No, I’m not out running or anything really ambitious like that, and I follow a few friends on Strava who go out every weekend and bicycle eighty miles straight up mountains, but I suspect that compared to the average heart attack patient, I’m doing a lot better than most.)

My co-workers have been nonplused, to say the least, by my coming right back to work without taking any time off. I put in four hours the day after my discharge and worked more or less normal hours this past week (except for time spent at various appointments). They think I’m crazy, or really driven, or both. A couple of co-workers who’ve had their own heart problems have been very supportive and full of good advice, for which I’m grateful, but it’s been a little hard to tactfully get across that not only am I already doing all the stuff they advise me to do (watching sodium, trying to do a Mediterranean-style diet, etcetera) but that I’m already feeling this well. I’ve had a few things recommended to me (like Coq10 enzyme pills, or adding a lot of ground flax to my diet) that sound interesting, but I’m going to talk to a doctor first.

Long story short: I feel really weird and confused about this whole thing. The hospital swears I had a heart attack, based on the troponin levels they saw in my system, which kept climbing for the first day and a half before finally starting to go down a day after the catheterization. I don’t know what else they saw on the ultrasounds or chest x-rays or EKGs, but they were quite clear, I had had a heart attack and I had a lot more plaque in my blood vessels than they would have expected for a man my age.

So why do I feel weird and confused? Well, it’s like getting diagnosed with cancer, going in for one treatment session, and seeing it just plain gone afterwards. You’d almost wonder if you ever really had it, right? Or to use another analogy, it’s like telling your parents that you’re too sick to go to school one day, only for one of them to come home early and see you out back jumping on the trampoline without a care in the world. One possibility, in that case, is that you miraculously got well really quickly, but the more likely possibility is that you were faking it.

I have to wonder if people aren’t wondering “did he really have a heart attack? Maybe it was just indigestion!” because I am totally not feeling or behaving like someone who just got out of the hospital after having had a heart attack. I’ve had co-workers ask me if I need or want them to bring meals by, help with errands, anything like that… only to be told “No, no, I’m good, I just walked ten miles, I think I’m recovering fairly well.” There’s a term for faking illness to get attention: “factitious disorder” (also called “Munchausen syndrome”). If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was faking the whole thing.

It also worries me a little bit that my experience might cause others to take their risk of heart attack a little less seriously than they ought to. You know, “Jay had a heart attack, and a few days later he was back wrestling mountain lions, it’s no big deal.”

I have a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist this coming Friday. It’ll be my first chance since being discharged to sit down and ask someone who would be in a position to know how severe my heart attack really was and whether there was anything on the ultrasound or X-rays or EKGs that would have helped spot this sooner.

For what it’s worth, some of you might be thinking “I hope the fact that he recovered so well, so quickly, doesn’t make him take rehab, diet modification, losing weight, and so on, and so on, less seriously.” I’m taking those things very seriously. I don’t ever want to find out the hard way what a bad heart attack is like.