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July 08, 2024

The Tell-Tale Heart

By Jeff Vierra

How much of the Science of Health and Fitness is really just Guesswork?

It seems like rules for good health change by the decade. A century ago a cure for fever was to make a strong tea from rabbit dung then strain and drink the tea every half hour until the sweating stopped. A cure for colic was to close the windows and doors of the baby's room and have the father keep smoking a pipe or cigar. Of course these cures seem ridiculous now, but back then, people were using those cures and swearing by them.

Fifty years ago, scientific researche showed that part of a healthy lifestyle was to get plenty of sun, as a means of getting vitamin D. True, our bodies produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. What we didn't know was that it could also produce skin cancer.

We have our debates even today. What is worse for you, obesity or smoking? What is better for you, a high carbohydrate/low fat diet or a low carbohydrate/high fat diet? Every position has its own statistics based on what appears to be sound scientific research. How do we choose what to believe?

For the most part, we tend to believe what makes the most sense to us, based on our own desires, our own experiences and our own lifestyles. I know this to be the case for me.

In this article, I will share what I believe. And here is the reason why I believe it...

For years, I was in great shape. Even as a child, I was the only person in my class to win the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. I won it both times my school participated. Throughout my childhood, I was very active and involved in sports. By the time I was "done" with school (that's another story), I went into the Air Force. I was skinny going in and was "beefed up", but just as lean, coming out.

After the Air Force, I got a job as a maintenance laborer through the Young Adult Conservation Corp at San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where I commuted 20 miles in by bicycle, did hard, physical labor all day long outside, and then commuted 20 miles back to my apartment. I did this every weekday. After funding for that job ended, I "threw freight" for a major grocery chain for 8 years, where I still remained in excellent shape.

Then I got an engineering job for a shrinking printer/terminal/disk controller company. (How a grocery clerk becomes a software engineer is yet another story.) I gained 20+ pounds in the course of 4 years. Many things contributed to this; a 130 mile round trip commute that kept me in the car 4 to 5 hours a day, a very busy job that had me eating fast food almost daily at my desk, and working long hours. All of this gave me just enough time to sleep about 5 to 6 hours a day.

After 4 years, my current employer (a major thin client manufacturer, where I have been for the last 11 years), purchased what was left of the minuscule company that gave me my engineering start. Even though I still had the commute, the pressures were not as great. The company's campus is beautiful. They also have a wonderful recreation center with all the exercise equipment you could ever want.

At the same time, I was going through the prerequisites to become a candidate for the deaconate training program in the Catholic Diocese of Stockton. One of the prerequisites was a physical. I was given a clean bill of health. With the new opportunity to start working out, my clean bill of health and being just plain tired of looking at myself in the mirror, I decided I was going to try to lose weight.

I struggled for a few years losing 15 pounds and then regaining 25. I finally reached a staggering 50 pounds over the weight I carried just before I got a desk job. The weight gain was not from the lack of trying to lose it. I just never had to think about losing weight before, and I didn't know how to go about losing it. In addition, I was going to be 40 years old soon. I knew I needed to lose the weight now, before I really damaged my health.

I had a friend who lost 100 pounds on the Atkins' Diet and a sister of mine got into bikini shape following the "Body for Life" exercise routine. I decided to do both. It became a way of living for me. As I started to get in better shape, I started to eat more balanced diet and exercise more intensely.

For 2 and a half years I had the following routine...

Mon - Weights and 3 to 4 mile run
Tue - 6 to 8 mile run
Wed - Weights and 3 to 4 mile run
Thu - 6 to 8 mile run
Fri - Weights and 3 to 4 mile run
Sat - 6 to 8 mile run
Sun - Run an hour, then bike an hour, and then swim an hour

I could eat anything that I wanted and stay at 180 pounds and 14 percent body fat, which is exceptional for my age. Exercise had become a well established part of my lifestyle and I enjoyed it. I was in the best shape of my life.

A couple of years ago, I would occasionally have chest pains after my long runs. Sometimes the pains were debilitating, where I would have to hold on to something to keep myself up until the pain would pass. However, I knew I was in great shape. Nothing could be wrong with me. I had convinced myself that maybe I was just getting winded, because I was getting older.

One day, my wife Cecilia saw me lying on our bed having one of my attacks. Although I was not trying to show any outward signs of discomfort, I didn't want to scare her, she looked at me and said worriedly that I really looked grey. I told her what had been going on with me and she made me call the doctor immediately. After the pain subsided, I called my HMO and got an evening appointment. I showered, ate dinner, and then went to see the doc.

At the doctor's office, a technician attached electrodes to me to take an EKG and stuck my arm in a blood pressure cuff. When my doctor came to check the results, my resting blood pressure was 190/110 and my EKG was abnormal. He gave me a prescription for Atenonol and made me an appointment for a treadmill test. The doctor asked me not to work out, until they knew what was wrong.

I came to take the treadmill test. I asked what was the average time people stayed on this thing. I was told 9 to 12 minutes. I asked what was the longest. The technician told me he had a 72 year old man go for 22 minutes. The technician stopped his test when he got tired of waiting. I thought to my self that I could surely beat this old man.

As I approached the 18 minute mark, at which time I felt that I had no problem and would easily break the old guy's record, the technician said he was stopping the test.

My active blood pressure was 250/160 -- dangerously high. He also said that my EKG was all over the place. After getting the results, my doctor scheduled me for a cardiolite test, which takes a moving picture of your heart. A week later, I took the approximately 4 hour test.

Ten days later, I got a call from my doctor. He said he just got the results of my test, and that the results were not good. I asked what the results were. He said he wouldn't tell me over the phone, but would rather do it in person ... now; and to come to his office right away. He made a prescription for nitroglycerin in my name at ever Kaiser Facility between my job and his office. If I had any chest pain on the way there, I was to stop, get the prescription filled, and take the nitroglycerin immediately.

I called my wife, Cecilia. We were both scared. I picked her up at home on my way to Kaiser, so that she could be with me. On the way there, we both cried.

My doctor said that 20 percent of my heart muscle was dead, and that I had had either a major heart attack, or several minor ones. Honestly, I expected much worse, like I needed a transplant or something.

He prescribed two blood pressure lowering medicines, a cholesterol-lowering medicine, a blood thinner and nitroglycerin patches that I was to wear 12 hours a day, everyday. He told me to do absolutely nothing until I had an angiogram. I asked if I needed to watch what I eat. He said don't worry about it until after the surgery.

The day of my surgery, my cardiologist told my wife and that on average these were the discoveries made during an angiogram...

  • 10 percent - nothing is wrong

  • 80 percent - blockages are found that can be fixed during the procedure

  • 10 percent - blockages are found that require a bypass. If this is the case, surgery is done at another hospital, at another time.

If it is any of the 10 percent discoveries, the procedure will take an hour, if it is the other, it will take two. The surgeon said based on my cardiolite test, he was sure I would fall into the 80 percent category.

I tell my doctor that I want to be awake for the procedure. He says I will be given a small amount of Valium, but other than that, I will be completely awake. I am prepped, moved into the operating room, and the procedure begins.

As my heart and vessels are being examined, I hear my cardiologist say to another person present "Come here, you won't believe this." As they are chatting, I cannot make out what they are saying. I ask what is wrong.

Finally my cardiologist tells me that nothing is wrong; that I have the heart of an eighteen year old. They remove the tubes, stitch up my groin, and roll me into recovery, where my cardiologist tells me to stay home and just relax, until he can look at my groin to make sure everything has healed right. Cecilia asked me what caused the pain then. I didn't know. By then, my cardiologist had already left.

I saw my cardiologist ten days later. He checks how my wound had healed, then starts to dismiss me as his patient. He said that I still need to take medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but that I can drop the rest.

I said "What the heck happened? I had real pain, multiple abnormal EKGs, and pictures of my heart saying 20 percent of it was scar tissue. Now you say I have the heart of an 18 year old."

The doctor said comparatively speaking, versus what they expected; I had the heart of an 18 year old. However, I did have high blood pressure and cholesterol too. He explained with EKGs, they play the odds, but that you can have abnormal EKGs and never have a heart attack, and have a perfect EKG, leave the hospital building, and die of a heart attack.

I asked again about the cardiolite test. He told me that they do get about 5 percent false positives, but generally they are in a grey area, where the results aren't clear. What was strange about my case was that it seemed so clear cut.

So, what about my pain?

Well, he said I probably have what are called micro vascular blockages, where I have heart attack like symptoms, but without the damage, because other adjacent vessels still have good blood flow, and that I shouldn't have pain anymore with my medication.

His answer was presented weakly at best. Could it have been a miracle? I'll leave that discussion for another time.

So after all that, what in the heck is my point!!!

You can be skinny, not smoke and still have health issues. I'm a case in point. You can be fat, smoke and still not have health issues. My mother is testament to that as well.

Looking at the last two analogies, where does the hereditary argument fit in?!

Doing a little research for this article, I looked at sumo wrestlers, who have some of the best cholesterol and blood pressure numbers around. Their diet is primarily made up of chanko-nabe, a traditional single-pot dish made of all of the things that your cardiologist loves you to eat, fish, vegetables and rice.

With the popularity of smoking among Japanese men, and the rock-star-like status of the sumo, I wouldn't be surprised if a few wrestlers partook in a victory cigar after a particularly glorious win ...

After much thought about what my position on good health really is, I remembered a few good rules to live by ...

  • Almost anything in moderation is OK ~ my good old down-to-earth dad

  • Almost anything in excess is not OK ~ my dad's son

And probably the single most important axiom to live by is...

  • In most situations, act with tolerance ~ learned from the examples of many others greater than myself

That means don't point fingers at individuals who have lifestyles contrary to yours. (Remember life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?)

It also means not stifling those who express their opinions generally, without malice or accusation. (Remember freedom of speech?)

Look at the changes that happened in the world, proclaimed in Woody Allen's movie Sleeper. Both the messages and lifestyles changed. (If you've never seen the movie, it is a must-see ... of course, in my humble opinion.)

So where am I today?

I gained back 40 lbs. After 3 months of not being able to work out, I lost the habit ... but still ate like I did. A year later I developed gout. My doctor said that it was from eating all the foods that gave me high cholesterol.

For the last month, I have been on the South Beach Diet, which my doctor tells me is really the only safe diet around, if you must follow a diet. I started using the elliptical trainer, then switched back to running 4 times a week, now that my gout is not acting up.

I have lost 15 pounds so far, and feel I have regained a healthy lifestyle. I plan to be back to 180 lbs. by the beginning of the New Year.

To all, peace.

I dedicate this article to Tedi Trindle, online friend and associate editor for the Piker Press.

Article © Jeff Vierra. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-11-06
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