In the world I work in, I see many super-fit people — all ages and races and genders — but even super-fit people are not immune to heart disease.
No matter what we do to maintain our health, we have no idea what heart issues or other issues may be lurking inside. Some people have clear symptoms that something is wrong, but some do not. According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 650,000 people die from heart disease every year in the U.S. A large majority are in the Southern states.
This is the story of two YMCA members who recently had heart attacks while at the Y. One was working out on the elliptical. The other was minutes away from starting one of my classes.
These two men recognized their symptoms early, and acted quickly in an extremely stressful situation. And they saved their own lives, thanks to the medical staff they encountered afterwards and even a little heavenly intervention.
These are their heart attack stories, proving that each person who suffers a heart event may experience it differently.
A marathon runner
Richard B., who will be 67 in March, was at the Y about to attend a cardio class. He had no symptoms before that day, other than he felt that over the last year-and-a-half he was slowing down some physically. He attributed this to how many birthdays he had lived through.
Richard is an avid runner and exerciser and has been since 2012. He has run all distances, from 5Ks to marathons, 26.2 miles. He also actively attended many classes over the last few years, as well as biked and lifted weights religiously.
He was on no medications, led a healthy lifestyle and is the first one in his family to have heart disease.
That Wednesday before he was going to attend the cardio class, he went to the restroom, and that’s when he started having very vivid symptoms.
Those symptoms included chest pains, right shoulder pain, right jaw hurting and, when he looked in the mirror, he noticed he was very pale. He said he felt like the life was draining out of him.
Somehow, he was able to keep his composure and walk out of the Y (which really wasn’t the best thing). He drove himself home, having to stop several times because he was feeling light-headed. The 10- to 12-mile trip eventually took around an hour.
Once home, he took five baby aspirin and some Tums and called his son to come get him to take him to the emergency room, where they quickly determined he was having a heart attack.
A heart catheterization showed that he had three blockages of 30-85 percent, and one blockage that was 100 percent. He is scheduled for bypass surgery this week.
Richard hopes to gradually be back to some of his exercise routine as soon as his doctor allows him to do so.
Pain on the elliptical
My other friend is Mike D. He is 61 years old. His routine was to be at the Oxford YMCA every Wednesday because his wife regularly attended a class there. But this Wednesday was different.
His wife woke up with a backache and decided to skip her class, so Mike went to the Anniston Y instead — a change that he feels may have saved his life.
Mike’s routine was to start on the elliptical for a certain amount of time in order to get his heart rate up to a designated threshold. This day, he had not quite gotten to that threshold when he started feeling a tightness dead center in his chest.
He had no other symptoms except the tightness.
The tightness progressively got worse, so he decided to sit down, but within a minute, it continued to get worse, and now he was noticing it was getting harder to breathe.
He quickly decided to leave the Y and drive straight to CARES medical clinic, about three blocks away. One of his friends is a doctor there. When he arrived, there were several people standing in line to be checked in. He stepped ahead of all of them and asked to see his friend the doctor.
Immediately, the doctor knew he was in cardiac trouble and had an ambulance called. Within moments, Mike was hustled out of there.
Mike said it went very quickly from there. He estimated that from the time he felt the pain at the Y to the time he was wheeled into surgery was about 20 minutes.
Before surgery, he found someone in the room to pray with him. He said that at that time he felt no fear. He ended up having three stents inserted for two blockages. He had 100 percent blockage on one and 80 percent on the other.
Before the heart attack, Mike was very active, but he did not start his three-day-a-week workout routine until he retired in 2019.
He did not have any symptoms before the day of his heart attack. He felt good and felt physically strong. At his two-week follow-up, Mike’s doctor said he sustained a very small amount of damage.
A lesson for us all
The takeaway from these stories is that both men looked like the picture of health. They were both very fit individuals. And maybe because they were both very fit, they were able to come through it all without slowing down much.
They had controlled their risk factors and had taken good care of themselves over the years. For many, these events would call for a major lifestyle change. But these men already subscribed to the theory that you shouldn’t wait until something goes wrong to decide to get fit; you get fit so that when the inevitable happens, your body is as prepared as it can be.
This is a lesson for all of us. Take care of your body before a health event occurs, so you can face these obstacles stronger and fight harder. It will pay off.
Ann Angell is a certified instructor and personal trainer. She is fitness director for the YMCA of Calhoun County. Her column, Fitness over 50, appears the third Sunday of each month.