Life After My Heart Attack
May 22, 2023 at 11:45 a.m.
I want to live; I want to give; I've been a miner for a heart of gold,
It's these expressions I never give that keep me searchin' for a heart of gold, and I'm getting old. “Heart of Gold" ~ Neil Young
I don't know whether I failed my heart or my heart failed me. Either way, I'm trying to make sense of the fact that, at 62, I had a heart attack earlier this year. I woke up on President's Day morning and knew something was wrong.
A boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my chest. I struggled to breathe and was sweaty, and my jaw ached terribly. I told my wife I needed to get to the hospital, just a few minutes away.
I thought I would have a heart attack, but when they looked at the EKG, they told me I was already in the middle of having one, and they would be moving fast now. The cardiologist had a stent in my blocked artery in what seemed like 15 minutes.
Modern western medicine might get a bad rap sometimes, but when you need an angioplasty, you feel lucky to have access.
The worst part of that morning was knowing the pain and fear it inflicted on my wife, who drove me to the ER, and her seeing the pain and panic on my face as I was wheeled into the Cath (catheterization) lab. It's important to note: If you are having a heart attack, don't drive to the ER. Call 911.
Perhaps even worse was my tearful call with my daughter shortly after being in the clear, knowing she knew I went into the hospital and didn't know if I would return. Her mom died when she was eight, and the thought of her losing a second parent devastates me.
In sharp detail, this event has brought up the memory of finding my father in his side yard, fallen in the leaves he was raking, trying to revive him. It was the first time I'd touched my lips to his since I was a small boy. He was 59 when he died, three years younger than I am now. I was lucky. He was not.
My cardiologist, who seems like a cross between Albert Einstein and Jerry Garcia, called me into the ICU after the event, and his first words were: "Bro. You had a heart attack!"
I laughed at the desired effect and told him I was still trying to wrap my head around that fact, too. I still am.
Ironically, toward the end of last year and the beginning of this one, I had been on a path toward getting healthy again after my less-than-great pandemic habits.
When the attack happened, I had lost 30 pounds from my couch potato COVID days.
I was eating much better, exercising regularly and trying my best. But I should've squeezed in one more cheeseburger for the good old days. So, what happens next? It's a question I'm still trying to answer and, thankfully, continue to be able to consider each day that I wake up.
For the past 25 years, I have been working for EngAGE, where we provide life-enhancing programs in arts, well-being, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational connection to people living in affordable housing. Our goal is to help give people a chance to live their best lives.
Although we now work with all ages, we started with seniors, trying to make aging, well, cool. Having thought about better ways to get older for a long time, I am now trying to practice what I've preached, so here are some ideas I am applying to my post-heart attack journey now.
Many of these can be healthy ways to think about your lifestyle:
I am taking my medications. I went from taking none to having a colorful 7-day, twice-a-day pillbox, lucky me. I'm also under the ongoing care of my cardiologist Dr. Einstein-Garcia. Also, I am closely monitoring my blood pressure and cholesterol.
I am not on a diet; eating healthy is my lifestyle now. I am following a nutrition plan my friend and EngAGE board member, Dr. Greg Berkoff, created.
I am slowly building back to exercising like I did before this happened, walking and building up to 30-40 minutes per day, then getting back to the gym for cardio, weights, core strength building and balance.
I watch out for signs of depression, isolation and loneliness. I am ready to go back to therapy if needed and am trying to connect with family and good friends constantly. This phase of life is interesting, as are all, so I often talk about it with people I love.
When I feel down about what happened or where I am, I try to feel a positive, strong sense of being lucky to be alive, as we all should feel each day.
I practice it actively daily, thankful for my life, friends and family, and for each breath.
I have had a love/hate relationship with this, especially during the pandemic, so I am using this event to quit altogether and very happy with that.
I am more present, breathe actively and meditate. I pay attention to the beauty in life, to stop and notice that. The recent snow frosting the mountains near LA was a good reminder for me.
I want to continue creating a sense of community, belonging and social connection daily. My wife and I have been meeting people in our neighborhood, stopping on the street in town to pet their dogs, say hello, and try to establish relationships with nearby people.
Creativity and Hobbies
I want to return to being more creative in my personal life. After a very long time, I have taken up drawing again, have been trying to do some creative writing, which I used to live for, and have been practicing photography as I travel and move through my world.
I have been walking outside more, trying to return to a love for walking, hiking, and taking in the stunning beauty of the great outdoors.
As a person in midlife, I have been paying attention to my ongoing sense of purpose and how I want to live the rest of my life. I want to continue to do good, to help my community and the people who live in it.
I am working on forgiving myself. When we experience a traumatic incident, it's easy to blame ourselves. But instead, I felt responsible for what happened to me and how deeply it affected the people I love, especially my wife and daughter.
This has helped motivate me to change my behavior to ensure I'm around for the people I love. But I also want to forgive myself and move on.
After having suffered a heart attack, I would not wish it on anyone – they hurt, it scared me more than I can tell you, and I realize how much I want to live on, to spend more time with my wife, daughter, family and friends.
But it's never too late to make this phase, or every stage, of your life better for you and the people you love — Carpe Diem.
Tim Carpenter founded EngAGE in 1999 to create community and change lives by transforming affordable senior and multigenerational housing projects into vibrant centers of learning, wellness, and creativity.