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Saturday, March 23 , 2019, 2:49 pm | Mostly Cloudy 62º


Tim Durnin: Unexpected Lessons From the Heart

Heart attack serves as a wake-up call about what matters most in life

It’s Sunday, March 27, a few minutes before midnight. I have just finished dinner at Searsucker, an upscale San Diego restaurant. The food was passable but unremarkable.

I say goodbye to my dinner guests and begin the short, three-block walk to my hotel. Halfway there I am gripped with pain. I feel as if someone is reaching into my body from behind and trying to push my rib cage out through my chest. I fall to my knees, begging and praying for it to pass. It does. I get to my feet and slowly, cautiously return to my hotel.

In retrospect, I am impressed with my ability to rationalize and negotiate with the fates and God. “Let it be a muscle spasm, a broken rib, pleurisy.” Shortly after I step into the hotel lobby, I am on my knees again, recognizing I need help.

I am seated when the paramedics arrive. They are lighthearted and laughing. Like me, they seem confident that whatever ailment might be afflicting me, it’s probably not serious. I smile and joke through the pain.

They do a quick EKG. Stop. I can see this moment, hold it in my mind, almost touch it. It hangs in the air in front of me, frozen, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

As the tape is gingerly pulled from the portable EKG, I see the face of the paramedic change and hear an almost inaudible, “Oh, s***.” My whole world changes.

In an instant, five firefighters and paramedics shift from being casually kind to alarmingly concerned. Within moments I am chewing aspirin, taking a shot of nitro under my tongue and having an IV line inserted in the top of my hand.

One of the firefighters grabs my shoulder firmly and informs me very matter-of-factly: “You’re having a heart attack.”

The words echo in my brain and bounce around the now focused efforts of those around me. I’m not afraid or panicked. In fact, a peace and surrender set in. This is clearly out of my control.

I am loaded into the ambulance and despite the shock, I’m impressed by the practiced, professional efficiency of it all. As we speed to the hospital, sirens blaring, I can hear preparations being made for my arrival.

Instructions for my care are also relayed back to the ambulance and executed within seconds. I am told a cardiologist is on his way to the hospital. They even give me his name.

We arrive at San Diego’s Scripps Mercy Hospital and 15 people surround me, each with some assigned task. Within minutes I am in the Angioplasty “Cath” Lab. Over the next 90 minutes, three stents are placed in my coronary arteries. One of the arteries was completely blocked.

I have learned a lot of jargon in the days since — am I really saying this? — my first heart attack. At 47, I thought I was a good 20 years away from this moment. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I seem to have dodged the bypass bullet, and I’m told the long-term damage to my heart is minimal.

I haven’t had the courage to ask what impact this may have on my life expectancy. I suspect that largely depends on my response. I do need to make some changes.

I will miss my American Spirit cigarettes, Jack-in-the-Box tacos and McDonald’s fries. I will miss marbled beef and deep fried anything — everything. Fast food and cigarettes have been comfort, convenience and welcome companions. These are not easy relationships to end.

However, I have two daughters, ages 11 and 12. Their pictures and my wife’s are taped to the mirror next to the hospital bracelets from my recent stay. I think I’ll try to stick around awhile and be humbly thankful for today — for every day.

— Tim Durnin is a father, husband and writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for ideas, comments, discussion and criticism.

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