We’ve all heard about the “typical” signs of a heart attack, but some are far sneakier than the ordinary left coronary symptoms we’re trained to look out for. What do right coronary symptoms look like? Jane Wilkens Michael, radio host and author of Long Live You! A Step-By-Step Plan to Look and Feel Better Than Before, recounts the harrowing tale of her husband’s recent heart attack, detailing the sinister signals you may be ignoring. Then, learn how you can achieve total health and keep your heart happy through a series of simple steps.
His Heart Will Go On
The life-changing incident took place more than three months ago, but it feels as if it were yesterday. My husband collapsed right in front of me, the result of a heart attack. We had, in fact, just visited his gastroenterologist, who had given him a prescription to alleviate what we all had assumed was chronic heartburn. But it turned out to be—and shockingly so—two almost entirely occluded right coronary arteries!
What went wrong? And how could it happen to the husband of a woman who prides herself on being recognized as an expert in the health, beauty and fitness fields, who wrote a book on the subject, hosts a weekly radio show, and whose lifestyle columns have appeared on Spry Living’s very pages?
The easy answer would be that he’s stubborn (He’s a lawyer! Big surprise!), and he doesn’t normally listen to my criticism about his diet. (Always in calm, constructive tones, of course!) But to be fair, while he would readily admit his eating habits were far from perfect, they weren’t all that bad, an occasional crab cake or Cronut notwithstanding. Plus, he was pretty good about finding time to exercise during the week. Ultimately, we chalked some of his coronary artery issues to a genetic predisposition to sudden blockages, business account lunches—and his mother’s saturated fat-filled foods of his youth.
I will now go on record as saying that he has truly been making an extreme and conscious effort to take better care of himself lately. That means working out religiously every day and rarely deviating from a heart-healthy diet—as a result, he now weighs ten pounds less than he did 45-years ago. Not a small feat for a man who claimed that it would be impossible given his “big bones.”
Fortunately, his recent episode was an ischemia (a blood-flow deficiency) rather than an infarction (total blockage with permanent injury to the heart muscles). But it was a heart attack still and all. And a sneaky one at that! There were none of the classic symptoms beforehand: the sense of substernal pressure as if someone was sitting on his chest or a pain that radiated to the left arm or jaw. No! He had only experienced—for several weeks leading up to the event—strange, unaccountable aches all over his body, but mostly centered in the lung and abdomen.
The distress became so severe that one morning he woke up and declared: “I know what’s wrong with me. I have been poisoned!” And yes, he said that while looking suspiciously at me. (As if!)
Turns out, he was indeed being poisoned—by his own body. In the subsequent months, I did a lot of research on why this could occur without any familiar warning signals. In layman’s terms, here’s what I learned: Right coronary blockages, as opposed to the ones on the left side, are in the part of the heart that pumps blood from the veins through the lungs to be re-oxygenated. They are also where shared nerves between the heart and the esophagus often produce symptoms mimicking indigestion, heartburn or gastric reflux.
Add in a burning sensation in the lungs from the lack of blood flow, and it’s no wonder even experienced physicians can be confused into thinking it’s not heart-related. It’s understandable, too, for the patient to just keep trying to treat it with Tums. That is also why these types of heart attacks—for women, especially—are often called “silent killers.”
Turning “Messes” into “Messages”
This holiday season, give the gift of a healthy heart. A good way to begin is to follow the nine “Rungs” of the Long Live You! Ladder to a Better Quality of Life. For best results, remember to start small. Consistent, steady movements and improvements are what count. Simply take a tip from each and visualize your “climb” out of any impending coronary clogs. Think progress, not perfection.
#1 Doctor’s Orders: If the heartburn that always went away with a few antacids persists—even if you have grudgingly given up the jalapeño burritos—see your doctor immediately and ask if it could be a problem with your right coronary arteries. Gastric reflux isn’t fatal. A heart attack could be!
#2 Emotional Well-Being: An often-overlooked element in coronary artery disease is emotional stress, so take that to heart, literally! Begin by not worrying so much about everything. Keep in mind that what we most agonize about never really happens anyway, so it’s simply a waste of good energy. And don’t keep dwelling on what went wrong—focus instead on what to do next. Know that when you begin to appreciate the little things, you start to look at life in a more positive light. And that has a significant impact on your overall health.
#3 Nutrition: When you eat a heart-healthy diet, you can prevent a heart attack—or a repeat performance. Incorporate beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, multigrains, olive or canola oil, and fish into your regimen, and get rid of all the simple “white” carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, bagels and potatoes. Daily sodium intake should be kept at 1,500 milligrams—about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt—and saturated fats should only contribute to about 7 percent of your daily calories.
#4 Fitness: Research-wise, there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence out there that exercise can strengthen your heart, lungs and blood vessels. They also can reduce stress and improve your sleep. There’s no magic to it. Be as active as possible, four to five days a week, even if it’s just a half hour at a time. After all, there are 24 hours in a day—you can always find those 30 minutes. (Note: the latest fitness trend is “Sweatworking” as an effective form of networking!)
#5 Beauty: The true meaning of beauty is a dazzling presence that shines from the inside, which is a combination of healthy living and doing good deeds. So stop obsessing on the external. In other words, don’t be so critical of yourself—it just adds unnecessary stress. (See Rung 2!)
#6 Natural Remedies: A number of studies show that meditation can actually lower the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, as well as significantly reducing blood pressure for those with hypertension. Calm an anxious mind by incorporating meditation into your daily regimen: Sit comfortably, close your eyes and concentrate on your breath. Think of each inhale and exhale as one count. Go up to 10. Inevitably your attention will focus on something else—such as, “Did I leave a boiling pot on the stove or forget to pick up a child after school?”—but that’s expected. Just bring the attention back to your breath.
#7 Spirituality: You have only to sit on the beach and stare out at the ocean, or watch the horizon brighten as a slice of sunlight wafts through the clouds at sunrise, to truly appreciate the omnipotent force that has created such magic. Believe that the same higher power will help you find strength and guide you through your darkest moments and onto improved health and wellness.
#8 Support: In a recent study, people in a coronary care unit who were prayed for experienced healing quicker with fewer complications than those who were not. Lawyer take note: I prayed for your recovery every minute of the day. I sure hope you’ll return the favor if, God forbid, I ever have a serious health issue. (Although between us, I can just see him a heated debate if I ever lay on life support: “Doc, I think we can pull the plug now. The Giants game starts in 30 minutes and she hasn’t complained about my diet for over an hour.”)
#9 Giving Back: See above!
At the end of the day, I believe that the universe sends us signals to alert us that it is time to change direction. However, the stars impel, they don’t compel. The real work is up to you! This was a wake-up call for The Lawyer—and for me! So if you haven’t been taking good enough care of yourself, now is the time to get back on the “beaten” track!
P.S.—Ignore the noise in the background. It’s just The Lawyer imploring, “Just please, not pinto beans again for dinner tonight!”