I never intended on smoking. In fact, back in high school I gave my best friend, Wally, a lot of grief about his smoking habit. It was a dirty, unhealthy waste of money. Then one day, Wally went into a panic. He was out of cigarettes and didn’t have any money. He asked me for the money and I decided I was going to have a little fun and there’s no fun better than fun that comes at your best friend’s expense. I would come up with the fifty-five cents for the pack of cigarettes (Yes, $.55 a pack, I’m that old!). The catch was that I would buy the pack of cigarettes and hold on to them myself. Wally would get a cigarette when I felt like giving him one. Having no other options, he agreed.
A few hours later we went our separate ways for the day, me with a pack of Marlboros in my pocket. I decided to try one to see if I could do it. The brilliant thought that went through my head was, “I won’t take up smoking. I’ll just learn how so, I know I could do it”. I was a natural. A week later I was smoking a pack a day and continued that for the next thirty-six years.
Fast forward thirty-six years and I’m now fifty-three, I’ve smoked tens of thousands of cigarettes, eaten more cheeseburgers and pizza (sausage and extra cheese) than I could count and remembered exercise as something I did once a long time ago. I ALSO DIDN’T KNOW ANY OF MY NUMBERS. I didn’t need to know. I generally felt OK. The huffing and puffing was just a sign of me getting a little older and, besides, I’ll start working-out again someday.
On Monday, July 26, 2010 I was here at work. I had, or at least I thought I had, a bad case of heartburn.
So, I did the logical thing. I got up from my desk and walked outside to have a cigarette. The heartburn persisted and I wondered if I had any Pepcid in my desk. I’d check when I got back. By the time I got to the “Unofficial-official smoking area” I was bent over trying to catch my breath. I needed to sit down so, I walked over to the nearest bench, which, thank God was about fifteen feet outside of the ER. I sat there waiting for the discomfort to go away. It didn’t. I thought, “Well I’m right outside of the ER, I’d be stupid if I didn’t go in and let them take a look at me. I was worried about looking foolish and going into the ER with heartburn but, I went in.
I told the person at the front desk I was having a hard time catching my breath and I was having some chest pain. She said, “Oh, we take chest pain very seriously around here”. She wasn’t kidding. Twenty –two minutes later I was laying on a table in the Cath Lab, with Dr. Kevin Carey was opening a balloon to clear a blockage in my left anterior descending artery. As he did, he said, “That should feel better” and it did. I started to slow down the pace and intensity of my praying, because maybe I wasn’t about to die. I learned later that I was in the process of dying. The type of heart attack I was experiencing is known as a “widow-maker.” The pattern created by my EKG is known as a “tombstone.”
The take away is that I was very, very lucky to be where I was when my heart attack happened. Had I been anywhere else, I would have written my symptoms off to really bad heart burn until it was too late and my wife would have become a widow. I was sitting on a bench outside of the only Level I trauma center in the state. Don’t bank on being this lucky. Know your numbers and ACT on them.
P.S. I haven’t touched a cigarette since the day of my heart attack. Doing some quick math, at just under a pack a day, I’ve avoided smoking over 18,000 cigarettes over the past three years! I’m fifteen pounds lighter (should lose another fifteen), and I work out on average 4 times a week. My biggest challenge regarding exercise is routine and boredom. So, I’ve made it my goal to do SOMETHING 4-5 times a week. I mix in running, aerobic yoga, elliptical and some strength training. Not only am I alive, I feel better than I have in decades.
Paul Macuga is Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Like what you read? Subscribe to our blog! You’ll be the first to know when we post something new. Just provide your email address in the WordPress link on the left-hand side of the page.