By Ralph Lee, as told to Barbara Brody
I have always thought of myself as an athlete. I played basketball at Xavier University in the 1980s and was admitted to the school’s hall of fame. So when I was struggling to climb a hill 2 years ago, I knew something was down. My wife and I had just left a Cleveland Browns game, and we were on our way back to our car. She walked with ease, hovering a few steps in front of me; I felt like I was moving backwards.
By the time we got to our car, my entire torso was drenched in sweat and I had a dull, almost numb sensation in my left arm. But the discomfort passed, then we went home. It was only the next day, when I called my doctor and he told me to go to the emergency room, that I realized how serious the situation was.
An ECG revealed that I had a heart attack, and it was not my first. The day before the Browns game, I participated in a fundraising event for the American Heart Association. The event involved a gentle 2 mile walk in mild weather, but by the time it was over I was sweating so much that I had to sit in my car for 20 minutes and shoot the air conditioner before I felt good enough to get away to drive.
In the hospital I found out I had three blocked veins. Blood flow to my heart was severely impaired and another, perhaps fatal, heart attack could be imminent if we did not act. A few days later I was in the operating room with a triple bypass.
A life-saving – and life-changing – experience
I was initially shocked when my doctor told me I needed to have bypass surgery. I do not smoke, I do not drink, and I am a former athlete. But it dawned on me that a lot has changed since I was a college basketball player.
Not only was I in my 50s now, but I was gaining a lot of weight, my exercise routine was spotless, and I was not consistently taking my medication to manage type 2 diabetes, with whom I had been diagnosed about 10 years before.
I rested on what was going to happen; I just wanted the operation to be over.
Because I was down general anesthesia, I do not remember anything about the procedure. But I know that my surgeon removed three healthy blood vessels from my left leg and used them to create new pathways that allowed blood to flow around the three blocked veins.
Bypass surgery is open heart surgery: The surgical team had to cut off the middle of my chest to reach my heart. When I woke up, it felt like a truck was driving over my chest. I was in anxiety, but I lived. I was also determined to do everything necessary to get out of the hospital as soon as possible.
Recovery was a disturbing experience because I had to learn again how to do the most basic things.
First, a nurse helped me take a few steps so I could try to use the bathroom, and I was encouraged to sit in a chair instead of staying in bed all day. Then I moved on to walk down the hall with a nurse and then walk on my own. By the third day they put me on the stairs; I had to walk slowly up and down three or four times a day.
One of my most vivid memories of that time is holding on to the red, heart-shaped pillow I was given after surgery. Because my chest was split open, I felt like I was about to die when I had to cough or sneeze. The pillow is pretty firm, and pressing it against my body gave pressure that helped keep everything in place and relieved the pain. I just clung to that pillow as if it was my best friend, as if it could save my life. Even after I got home from the hospital, I attached to that pillow for weeks. Everyone who came to visit signed it.
About a month after the surgery, I was released to start outpatient rehabilitation. Three times a week, I participated with a group of other cardiac patients in supervised exercise and lifestyle counseling.
Because I was in my 50s, I was the youngest patient there, but it was actually a lot of fun. Being stuck at home felt separate, even though my wife took great care of me. I really like being close to people – I’m a human resource manager – so I welcomed the opportunity to drive to rehab, meet people and get back into a routine. I felt like I was making new friends and coming back into the world.
Since my ordeal, I have regained some strength and have had time to evaluate how my lifestyle choices landed me in this situation in the first place. In hindsight, it was all my fault. I never thought something like this would happen to me, but I did not take care of myself, and I did not listen to the people who tried to encourage me to change course.
It’s been 2 years since my bypass surgery, and since then I have stopped eating red meat. I take all my medication as prescribed. And I see my cardiologist for an examination every 6 months. I’ve also tried to get back into exercise, but I’m not quite there yet. There is more I can do.
Perhaps most importantly, I am now listening to my body. I struggled during the Heart Walk and again after the Browns game, but I ended up going home instead of getting help. Now, if I feel something is wrong, I go straight to the hospital.