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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Not a moment too soon, I thought of Tim Russert: Early warning signs of heart attack

Most Saturday mornings, I bicycle with a group of men, mostly in their 50s, whom I affectionately call the Cheat Death group. We are all in pretty good shape, competitive but supportive, and convinced that hard-core exercise is our ticket to postponing the inevitable.

The ride a few Sundays back was a tough one. At 6:30 am, the pack took off fast and immediately headed for the hills near Durham, New Hampshire. The first few climbs felt pretty good, but by the third hill I started to feel nauseated.

Figuring that was probably a result of the four beers and large Chinese dinner the night before, I kept going. Twenty-five mles into the ride, I had fallen to the back of the pack. I was short of breath and wondering how I was going to make it much farther.

I am someone who hates to quit. But after the third time the group had to stop and wait for me, I decided I had no choice. I watched them pedal away, then lay down in the grass. Besides the nausea, my only symptoms were a persistent cough and an overwhelming feeling that something was not right. I called my wife and got a ride home.

I started thinking: Though I'm a 50-year-old guy with a stressful job and a little too much around the middle, I had a clean bill of health. I had good cholesterol numbers and a great doctor, and recently I had passed a cardiac stress test.

That's when Tim Russert popped into my head. I bolted out of bed and Googled a list of warning signs of a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. Nausea: check. Shortness of breath: Check. Chest discomfort: Perhaps, though it really didn't feel like much.

Ignoring the web site's advice to call 911 (I was too vain to have an ambulance pull up to my house), I drove to the hospital.

I was having a severe heart attack – despite the stress test, the red wine, olive oil, and all my exercise. They gave me a stent in the cath lab [for "cardiac catheterization"] to open the artery that had suddenly been blocked by a blood clot.

As in Tim Russert's case, there had been no warning signs. If I had not gone to the hospital, I might very well have died.

Advice to middle-aged guys like me: Listen to your body. Michael risked some teasing by his bicycle buddies and quitting the ride, and going to the hospital, and it saved his life.

Read a story of appropriate care after getting a stent.

Thanks to Michael Bicks for the source article in the July 8 issue of the NY Times.

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