My dad died from heart disease. This is the story of how his heart attack and his heart disease changed how I live my life.
Before that, about 10 years before that, his first heart attack changed my life. It changed how I look at what I ate, it changed my view of my own mortality, it changed how I made decisions and it changed how I viewed running and exercise in my life.
I am talking about this today because Tim O’Donnell is telling the story of his heart attack.
Not everyone who reads my blog is a triathlon fan. So let me share that Tim O’Donnell is a pro long-course triathlete who was the second-place finisher at the 2019 Ironman World Championship. He is one of the worlds best at pushing his body through a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. There is little question of his overall fitness being not just good but extraordinary.
Yet, he experienced a pretty massive heart attack. Luckily, and perhaps partially because of his extraordinary aerobic fitness he survived that event. (<–this is my speculation and I will point out that I am not a doctor nor am I pretending to be a doctor).
Now back to my story of me and my dad.
I was 25. I’m pretty sure. I’m writing this from memory and some of the timeline I might mess up a little bit. For example I’m not sure if my wedding was before or after the bypass surgery. But let’s continue because that’s not entirely the point.
I am pretty sure I was not thinking about death. This was before I did triathlon, before I was married, before I had kids. I had a great job. I pretty fabulous boyfriend. The instant family I had wished for. I had just bought a house in my favorite neighborhood.
I was already running marathons. I was young and thin and thought I was probably super healthy.
I don’t even think I actually had a primary care doctor at this point. I rarely ever got sick.
My dad was staying with us for a few days on vacation. Even though my dad and his short lived interest in jogging is what kicked off my running hobby as a kid. My dad was never an example of health.
My dad lived his life FULL TILT.
Booze, Food, sex, music, drugs, travel.
You name …it he was all in.
“No,” was not a word he used very often. “That’s enough for now,” was not a thought he entertained very frequently. Moderation was not something he excelled at … at all.
He was a wonderful person to have at a party. He was funny. Super funny.
He was significantly less fun if you were a kid and you needed a reliable and stable dad but that’s a story for another day.
I loved my father fiercely. But as an adult I had put in place some serious boundaries because most of my life he was unreliable. Also a story for another day.
This is the story of my dad’s first heart attack.
He was in town. He came to visit. It was kind of dramatic because he had cancelled a few times and didn’t tell us why. Finally, he came for a few days and he was staying with us.
I remember we served pork chops for dinner.
My dad didn’t eat much at dinner because he said he already felt full. He described it as indigestion.
I offered him a glass of water. Thankfully my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) took things a little more seriously and called his doctor who said – take him immediately to the hospital.
I was fairly sure this was an overreaction. I tend to be overly calm in times of stress. It’s not always a good thing.
We got in the car. I was driving. My boyfriend in the passenger seat. My dad in the back seat. He was feeling physically uncomfortable by this point and going to the hospital was seeming like a better idea to me with each minute.
I stopped at a stop sign and my father collapsed in the back seat and began to “seize.” If you are curious, to me watching it in the rear view mirror of my blue Jeep Cherokee this looked exactly like a heart attack is portrayed on TV.
My boyfriend yelled, “go! Don’t stop.” I proceeded to drive recklessly the remaining blocks to the hospital where I pulled into the emergency bay. Thankfully my boyfriends doctor had called ahead and a team was actually waiting for us to arrive.
My dad was grey and motionless when they pulled him from my car.
Getting my dad out of the car was a process. ER doctors are apparently prepared for people to arrive on gurneys. They are not always prepared to grab a 6 foot tall 240 pound adult from a car.
My boyfriend had to hoist my dad out of the car and then several people got his body onto the gurney.
It was a dramatic moment. I was sobbing off to the side. I don’t actually remember this other than the color of my dad’s skin I only know this from what was told to me.
I sat beside the door and cried.
My boyfriend parked the car and came back and got me.
We cried and then we relocated to the waiting room.
Not too much later the young doctor brought me into a private room for an update. I was standing and he said, “your father was dead when he arrived but we revived him.”
My response to the young doctor who said this to me was that the next time he gave that information he should reverse the order of the details if he didn’t want a second patient. I can apparently give editorial comments on content even in the most stressful situations.
It was without a doubt one of the most traumatic moments of my life. I tell you this without any illusions that this one day changed almost everything I future decision I would make and all the things I decide to do.
My dad stayed in the hospital about 3 weeks. He was not a candidate at the time for any heart procedures because his health overall was very very poor.
My dad at the time was depressed, overweight, lonely, drinking too much, and just sick, sick, sick.
His doctor met me outside the ICU where he was sedated and intubated while they pushed the fluid out of his lungs. When your heart stops your lungs fill with fluid in just moments. For my dad this was further complicated and precarious because he was simultaneously detoxing from a life of heavy alcohol abuse. His situation was dire and they were honest with me that he may not survive the detox.
I was 25 years old.
The doctor looked at me and explained that I had just moved from the lowest risk category of heart disease to the highest. He directly but gently told me that even though I ran marathons I most likely already had early signs of heart disease that nobody would see for decades. He told me and because that same doctor is actually still my doctor he has continued to tell me that I will need to aggressively advocate for myself in the medical system because since I was athletic I may not appear sick even if I am actually quite sick from heart disease.
Those words have changed my life.
Well first it did kick my personal health choices into high-gear. It was definitely the driver to me taking on triathlon. But some of those diet behaviors didn’t stick forever.
Some things have stuck.
I don’t wait to do things.
This is not an excuse for indulgence. It’s my reason to appreciate my life – even the hard parts.
It is also a motivation to not delay my dreams. When I have a decision I will actually think to myself that I may never have a future opportunity to do this. Am I okay with that? (For skydiving … the answer is still, yes I’m fine if I look back and never jumped out of an airplane.)
When it’s a lazy day and I’m sitting on the couch sometimes I will jump up and go for a walk or I will call a friend or just feel pressure to DO SOMETHING because the sense that I’m wasting my moments of life becomes very front and center in my thoughts.
When I fight with my teenage son … I try to remember that I’m lucky to have these moments, any moments and how I choose to experienced them is up to me.
I am aware that my life will end at a time not of my choosing.
I don’t dwell on my mortality because that doesn’t feel good but it’s at the base of all my thoughtwork.
Back to that first heart attack.
I visited my dad every few days. It was a rough time. I blamed him and his life choices for where he was. I was very angry and I let him know. When he left the hospital he went home to NY. He didn’t immediately make the lifestyle changes that were needed. In fact, it took another heart attack before he would make changes. He wasn’t ready.
Second Heart Attack and a Very Risky Surgery
A couple of years later he had another heart attack and he still wasn’t strong enough for traditional bypass surgery. But we miraculously found him a crazy amazing surgeon who was brave enough to do what’s called a beating heart bypass because they didn’t think he’d survive the bypass machine. He needed a full quintuple bypass but because he had been a smoker and he was a diabetic the surgeon could only find 3 usable veins so he did a triple bypass.
In recovery after bypass surgery, that surgeon told my father he could never drink again EVER. And that he must get his diabetes under control immediately. He then gave my father the best nutrition advice I’ve ever heard. When you want a brownie – eat a carrot. My dad said that’s terrible advice a carrot is nothing like a brownie. The surgeon answered, you asked for advice I never said it would be easy.
That surgeon was a total jerk and also I would absolutely trust him with my life. 🙂
After the surgery his surgeon told me that this would give him 5-10 more years.
My dad lived with me after his surgery while he was recovering. This is when I wrote my first training plan which was a how to start walking for fitness plan.
We repaired a lot of our relationship. For the last 6 years of his life I talked , texted or emailed with my dad every day.
After all this during these 6 years my dad followed the instructions and lived a pretty healthy lifestyle. There is one other time I remember he did this for about 10 years when I was a kid – that’s a story for another day.
He met all of my children including my youngest son who got my dad’s blue eyes.
Five years after his surgery my husband reminded me what the surgeon had said. That the bypass would give him 5-10 more years.
It’s not really related to this topic but the 4 weeks that my dad was in the hospital for heart surgery were the most intense and stressful of my life except for the year after he died.
No more options – Congestive Heart Failure
It’s also around this time that my dad ended up in the hospital again. This time he got a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. And his surgeon had to tell him that there was not any further surgical intervention that would help.
To celebrate his next birthday we decided to take a family trip to Hawk’s Cay resort. My brother and his pregnant wife came to visit for the week. It was fun. We stayed in a townhouse together for a weekend. The big event was swimming with dolphins. My dad was floored by the whole experience. Dolphins are amazing.We ordered the deluxe photo package for all of us. It was ridiculously expensive and we did it anyway.
A few weeks later I called my dad to set up Fathers’ Day plans and he didn’t call me back.
As I was getting ready for bed I realized my dad didn’t call me back. I knew something was wrong. I tried not to worry. I failed. I tossed and turned and worried all night long. Very early the next morning I called the sheriff’s office and asked them to do a wellness check on him. They discovered that he had died during the night of a massive heart attack.
Here’s a potentially significant medical thing I want to share with you about the beginning of this story. From before my dad’s first heart attack.
My dad was under the regular care of a primary care doctor and a cardiologist before his first heart attack. Six weeks before his first massive heart attack his cardiologist gave him a clean bill of heart health. Including an EKG and an in-office cardiac stress test. The test results were within the normal range. 6 weeks later he had a massive heart attack.
Now, you can take what you want from that but my personal lesson that I apply to my life and my relationship with my doctors is that they are quite possibly not as good at predicting and preventing heart attacks as they are treating heart attacks AFTER they happen IF you survive.
Looking back the sign that something was very wrong may have been my fathers eyes. He had experienced rapid cataract growth. This was why my dad had cancelled his dinner plans with me. He was struggling to see with the glare on the windshield of his car. While in the hospital for his heart attack … basically everybody from the nurses to the doctors observed these cataracts so when he did go back to NYC that was the first thing that he did was have the cataracts removed.
But here’s a thing to keep top of mind … these signs are only quite possibly evident when the damage is already there and possibly extreme. Keep in mind I’m not a doctor … these are my opinions. You get to make your own opinions.
My dad’s heart doctors repeatedly told me that heart disease may be primarily genetic.
I’m not a doctor. Again. Obviously. But I choose to accept that reality.
I proceed through my life with the knowledge that I may already have heart disease. That the choices I make will impact my care options and how fast the disease may spread but that my most important decision is in how I want to experience my life today and hopefully tomorrow.
I am under the care of a primary care doctor who has a heart specialty and I have a cardiologist and I get an annual physical and heart exam.
When I was 38 or 39 and deciding whether I wanted to try an Ironman triathlon I said yes because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that kind of thing.
When the world shut down for the pandemic and I had to decide whether to stay home or take my children on a cross country trip … I chose the trip because I don’t know if I’ll have another choice.
When I’m stuck in traffic and I’m going to be late. I don’t get upset. I don’t enjoy being stuck in traffic. I recently moved the location of my house in part to be in traffic less often. But I try a lot not to let myself get annoyed when I’m in traffic. If you don’t believe me … you can ask my husband because my non-annoyance drives him CRAZY. He’ll be frazzled and I’ll say, relax … it’s okay. And he’ll point out that never in all of history has a husband relaxed when a wife says, relax.
If I try I can remember that I am lucky to be there. I’m lucky to be alive and I won’t get these minutes back. It’s my choice how I want to experience them and I try not to choose to be annoyed by traffic. (teenagers are a different story … I won’t say that I’m able to keep my cool there as often).
The death of somebody we love brings us up close and personal with the reality of our own impending mortality. For me this can actually be a helpful perspective. Not particularly fun but helpful.
People often want to go extreme with a nutritional response to heart disease.
That’s okay if it works for you.
I personally don’t do that.
I will also admit that this past 2 years of pandemic living my normal caution with diet has been relaxed. Which is almost definitely not a good thing. And yet I also accept that it has been a part of me coping with the stress of this current situation.
When I wake up and think … hmmm … should I run today I don’t always do it but when I do I know that there won’t always be a day when I’ll be able to do it. If I’m going to do it … I want to enjoy it. Most of the time I do go run. The same is not true for the morning swim. The thoughts are the same but the answer is different. 🙂
The final lesson I guess I would want to share here is that you can do all of these changes without losing somebody you love … if you want.
What does that look like?
Well it’s different for everybody.
But generally it might include being present in the pleasure of this moment. That’s sometimes called mindfullness.
In my experience it means being very intentional with the choices you make.
For me, it’s about being brutally honest with myself about what I truly want and then being brave enough to admit that if I really want it I need to do the work to get it. And the second part of that is accepting full responsibility for the reality that I create for myself.
I hope that you enjoyed this little essay.
Thank you for reading it.
Let me know what you think. If you want to talk to me about your thoughts or concerns in your life and your family. I’m here for that.
Leave me a comment.