Paul Macuga is Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center

Paul Macuga is Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center

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.

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