Much Too Close to Home

March 18, 2012 by  

My older brother, an admitted workaholic, retired from the Air Force about ten years (maybe longer) ago as a full colonel, and settled into a comfortable life in Annapolis, MD. He took a job that took advantage of his training in a small software firm. He was there for a couple of years, but for the last six months of the company’s existence, he went virtually, as the company imploded after losing one of their main venture capitalists, followed by the death of the founder and CEO. He was out of work for a few months before getting another great job, this time with the state of Maryland, where he was a procurement manager. I think he was there for five or six years, and had just retired two months ago, when he reached his 65th birthday.

As he was working toward the process of retirement, he and his wife fell in love with a house in Havre de Grace, MD, not far from their younger daughter’s home, and have been very busy with scads of expensive and physically challenging renovations. Through all this, and maybe for as long as two years previously, he kept saying that he just felt lousy. His wife saw the changes in his appearance and demeanor, and pleaded with him to find out what was wrong, but I think he shrugged most of it off, convinced it was just part of being in his 60s.

It all changed today when he called his doctor complaining of minor chest pains. He told my brother to directly to the emergency room and not to bother coming to the office. At the local Havre de Grace hospital, he got a stress test on a treadmill. He failed. Within an hour, he was on his way in an ambulance to a Baltimore hospital for further tests.

At that hospital, doctors ran a large catheter up his femoral artery to a location near his heart, and injected a dye to make it easier to see any potential blockages on the x-ray machine. The results were really, really bad. Of the three major arteries feeding his heart, one was completely plugged up with plaque. The next was 99% clogged, and the remaining one was clogged about 80%. A smaller fourth artery had expanded to take on some of the load–another of nature’s miracles. The man was literally a walking time bomb. That he didn’t just keel over and die at any moment was a miracle in and of itself.

Fortunately, with the catheter system already in place, it was possible for doctors to insert stents into the plugged arteries to force the plaque up against the artery walls, opening the arteries to near full flow.

Doctors predict he will be going home tomorrow–a testament to modern non-invasive surgery. Most folks who have had similar procedures note that with the improved blood flow through the heart, they feel like they could climb Mt. Everest.

When I spoke to him before the procedure, we talked about our family history, which was especially rife with cardiovascular issues. Let’s see now… Our grandfather died of coronary occlusion at 61 (no bypass surgery in 1951), my grandmother had the first of several nondebilitating strokes when she was barely 60, my maternal great-grandmother had a massive stroke in her 50s and was bedridden for the rest of her life (another 20 or more years), a great aunt who had multiple debilitating strokes, our mother who had bypass surgery at 70 and then had multiple strokes up to the end of her life, her sister had a single massive stroke that killed her instantly in her early 60s, her brother had experimental coronary bypass surgery when he was 48 (in 1971). Oh, and that was just on my mother’s side. There were issues on our father’s side (starting with his four pack-a-day smoking habit), but nowhere near as bad as my Norwegian relatives. Need I go on?

Here’s the moral of this story. If you really feel lousy, (not flu lousy, but just a general lousy) keep after your doctor–especially if you have as toxic a family history that my brothers and sister and I share.

  • Start with a stress test (treadmill or a chemical equivalent), and if you pass, keep reminding your doctor about your family history every year or so.
  • Take a baby aspirin every day, and maybe even a fish oil pill (the jury’s still out on its effectiveness, but it won’t hurt you).
  • If your cholesterol numbers are high, take the appropriate medication (or work with your naturopath, if you prefer).
  • Ditto for blood pressure meds. (In my particular case, I take two statins and two blood pressure pills, along with a single baby asprin, a multivitamin, and a fish oil pill.)
  • Diet. I won’t bug you about diet, at least not until I do something about mine. I have cut out a lot of the snacking, though.
  • Exercise. My brother has been running for a couple of years, only cutting down when his knees bothered him (amazingly, he never had an angina attack in spite of some pretty aggressive running). I started going to the gym three days a week about a year ago. I don’t know if I feel better or not, but I am down 25-30 pounds.
  • If you smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. My brother did smoke, but quit over 25 years ago. I stopped almost 20 years ago, giving up a 3-4 pack-a-day habit. I still miss it, but won’t go back.
  • Finally, don’t ignore the warning signs. If you feel some tightness in your chest that takes a long time to go away (or doesn’t go away), see your doctor immediately.

My brother was given a gift today—the gift of life. His wife, his daughters (and their spouses), granddaughter, grandsons, siblings, and all the rest of the family are giving thanks today for the wonderful gift bestowed upon my brother.