Exercise Beyond Futility

Frank used to be an engineer, like me.  Mechanical.  He worked at the Arsenal years ago, where they built that “bunker buster” bomb that helped win the first Gulf War.  The one where we were the good guys, defending Kuwait from aggression.  He told me his story as we walked the treadmills at cardiac rehab.

It’s what we do at rehab, swap stories.  There are a lot of stories in that room, earned during the active lives of men decades older than I.  Those who aren’t talkers usually have their wives in the waiting room, and I hear stories from them.  I learn how this one had a double bypass; that one, congestive heart failure.  We talk about treatments, and medications, and side effects.  I talk about my stent, and they marvel at how quickly a man can return to full activity after a heart attack these days.  “You look so good,” they say, and I thank them.  What else can I do?

Because I don’t feel so good, some days, and it never feels like full activity.  The nurse said I could push it this week, and I made it up to 4.3 miles per hour for half of my twenty minutes on the treadmill.  4.3 used to be my resting pace, for times when I couldn’t run any farther.  These days, I don’t run at all, and I haven’t even mowed the lawn myself in a month and a half..  I used to get up early on my days off to write; today, I get up early to take my meds, and stay up because I refuse to let my body stop me, even if my efforts lead to no more than a dozen words.

The restrictions placed upon me by the world seem worse by far than those imposed by my body.  I needed a doctor’s note just to return to my desk job, and now I find I will need a second note before they will let me travel by air for a customer meeting.  I monitor my eating of salt, of fats, of cholesterol, not because my blood pressure or cholesterol levels were high before my heart attack, but because people I love will worry if I don’t.  And I take my meds twice a day, every day, without fail, knowing my body will warn me if I forget, because I feel pretty good if I forget.  My heart rate is suppressed, my blood pressure low, and I feel best when they let me drive them back up through exercise.Piper_Super_Cub_N158FJ_02

I am pounding away on the exercise bike when Frank walks up to tell me about his loss.  He used to be a private pilot, he said. The Arsenal had a fleet of planes at its disposal, and they let their Aviation club borrow them for the cost of fuel and maintenance.  Frank describes them for me:  Cessna’s and a Piper Super Cub, and other planes whose names I don’t recognize.  Frank loved to fly, but they won’t let him do it any more. After his heart attack, they wouldn’t let him renew his license.  That seems deeply sad to me, but Frank seems happy just to share his story with me.  And I’m glad he can be happy.

At the same time, I’m not Frank. He is retired, and if he wants to sit and talk, or read, or watch TV, he can do so at his leisure.  I have a job, and a mortgage to pay, and two kids to put through college.  I have twenty years before I get to where he stands today, and stories to write before I get there.  So I’ll write my dozen words, and a dozen more after that.  I’ll go to rehab and work until I can run again.  I’ll work until I can mow the lawn, and shovel snow in the winter, and hike the Adirondacks with my wife.  And I’ll get that second doctor’s note.

I’m going to fly.

Photo “Piper Super Cub N158FJ” by Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons



EKGITammie Painter recently posted about the health risks of writing, primarily due to inactive lifestyles. One week later, I got first-hand evidence to confirm this post. Yes, it was a STEMI heart attack triggered by a 90% blockage of the LAD artery.  Depending on whom you ask[1], that may or may not be the Widowmaker, so named because it has caused a lot of women to lose their husbands. The event has necessarily delayed my writing, and I think this issue is important enough to deserve a few thoughts from the inside, presented in no meaningful order that I can discern.left-coronary-artery

  1. A heart attack can surprise anybody.  I don’t  drink heavily or smoke at all, I eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, and have always had excellent blood pressure and decent (though not stellar) cholesterol levels.  I even started regular aerobic exercise two years ago, and I’m relatively young (not yet fifty).  I’ve been watching for this kind of thing for over a decade due to family history, yet it caught me without warning, and my friends were surprised that it happened to me, too. It is dangerous to assume this can’t happen to you, because it can.
  2. A support system really helps.  I spent a significant portion of the first day after my STEMI in tears – and not because of pain.  The support I received from our friends during this past week has been overwhelming. Yes, I have missed work — and writing — for a duration I would have considered unconscionable in the days before my attack, but they really did hold things together for my family while I was out of operation.  Oh, yeah, and my wife is awesome.
  3. Dealing with the risks in advance is worthwhile. All things considered, I am doing well after my heart attack. My hospital neighbors with compounding issues like diabetes or nicotine addiction have had it far worse than I.  Despite my reasonably good pre-STEMI health, I find myself frustrated today by how weak and slow my post-heart-attack body seems to be, even when I “feel” good.  They tell me this can improve, but even so, I look forward to taking multiple medications every single day for the rest of my life in order to avoid another attack.  If you think it’s annoying to eat right and exercise today, consider what restrictions could be applied to your life if you don’t.
  4. Trauma may have a delayed emotional impact.  I was mentally aware of what had happened to me from the start, but its implications seemed more like an annoyance for days after the event. I was actually more worried about my wife’s state of mind until a nurse in the PCU[2] pointed out the obvious:  that I could have died, and it was legitimately a big deal. Only then was I ready to apply myself 100% to my own recovery.

Moral of the story:  unless you’re looking to transition into a permanent career as a ghost writer, you need to take a hard look at your own life and do those things today that will protect your life tomorrow.  And if you know someone who has gone through a traumatic event (patients and relatives both apply here), give them the time to emotionally understand what has happened. We don’t all process things at the same rate.

[1] My doctor says the term “widowmaker” should only be used to describe blockage of the left main coronary artery, whereas it was my left anterior descending artery that was blocked.  Honestly, I don’t care if I’m being imprecise, because I’m not a doctor, and they’re both bad news.
[2] The PCU is the “Progressive Care Unit”, where they send you after you’re stabilized in the cardiac care unit, and before you’re ready to go home.  I told my sister that progressive care is just like intensive care, but with a livable minimum wage.  I was being facetious.

Photo “EKGI”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Photo “Ha1”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons