[This article was originally written in the Fall of 2006]
With just a few heartbeats, my life changed forever. But it was those heartbeats that also saved my life. As I sat hooked up to electrodes, I thought nothing of the routine nuclear stress test that was supposed to rule out any possible heart issues following three weeks of intermittent chest pain. As it turned out, nothing was routine about this particular day.
The sharp pain that initially pierced my chest when I began my group warm-up run at South Mountain is one I’ll never forget. I literally remember thinking that I may be having a heart attack but by the time I made my way down to the hill for the start of my first repeat the pain subsided and I eventually completed my workout. However, after a trip to the emergency room that weekend and a baseline stress test that I passed with flying colors days later, I was told the pain was atypical, take Aleve, and return for follow-up testing. Following a lengthy discussion with the nurse at the cardiologist’s office there was some thought that the pain may be muscular skeletal. As the nurse and I continued our discussion about the extent of my running, she thought it wise to schedule two more tests to ·rule out any heart issues.· I was scheduled to return in 10 days for a nuclear stress test followed by an echocardiogram the next day. In the meantime, I was told I could run as long as I didn’t have any chest pain. So during that next week-and-a-half, I logged some fast-paced workouts while other days the pain set in before I could even complete 100 meters. Numerous times I contemplated canceling the two tests. I equated completing some speed work to improvement in any possible muscular skeletal condition. Three days prior to the first part of my nuclear stress test I verified that my insurance company had authorized the tests. That sealed my decision. I would move forward with the procedures.
“I think you have a blocked artery”, were the words spoken by the cardiologist as he stood in front of me holding the printouts from the two EKG tests that prompted the nuclear stress test to be abruptly aborted. Two hours later, I was on the operating table. Two stents were inserted into my Left Anterior Descending Artery which was 70% blocked. Following the procedure, my cardiologist told me that sometime during the two weeks between my baseline stress test and my aborted nuclear stress test I had sustained a silent mild heart attack. I have absolutely zero risk factors and I have been running competitively for nearly 30 years. I was the picture of perfect health. I asked my doctor what would have happened had I ignored the pain and not followed through with the tests. “At some point” he said, “You would have had a full-blown heart attack.”
As runners, we think of ourselves as invincible. We feel strong and in charge of our bodies as if they were a well-tuned machine. But when pain, discomfort, and aches set in those sensations are telling us something and they cannot and should not be ignored. Sometimes, the root cause is obvious but other times the answer is not as clear. This is when persistency in finding an answer may be necessary on our part. Aches and discomfort are typically manageable and can often be remedied by following the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevate). Pain, on the other hand, especially when it alters our running stride or halts us in our tracks, is a red flag and you need to stop running otherwise you can incur additional injury.
Not all injuries or medical conditions, though, have warning signs. In these cases, testing may be the best method of detection. Following a recent stress fracture in my foot, a bone density exam had been ordered. Several times I reconsidered following through on the doctor’s orders. Thankfully I did. It revealed that I have osteoporosis; a silent disease.
My sincerest thanks to each of you for your well-wishes and continued support during this time of recovery. As athletes, we take great pride in maintaining our health but we, too, are humans and are susceptible to injuries and medical conditions of varying degrees.
Since my heart procedure September 20 (2007), I have been asked countless times what advice I would share from my experience. I tell you this: don’t ever be too embarrassed to seek medical attention for fear that you may be crying wolf; embrace every run as though it may be your last, and most importantly; learn to pay attention to and act on the warning signs your body gives you. My body talked to me and I listened. For that, I am forever grateful.
[12/07 – Despite a very difficult year, losing her sister to breast cancer in the wake of her heart attack, Claudia is still running and listening to her body.]