Note: The subject's last name has been witheld to protect his privacy.
A gray man lost wandering through the middle of his life, Ed generally ate in a way that you wouldn’t describe as either healthy or unhealthy. He wasn’t a fan of vegetables and fruits; still, he tried to get some in each and every day. Meanwhile, he avoided sugars and sweets as he naturally had no taste for them. He liked a good sandwich, ate a pizza slice here or there, and enjoyed his meat and potatoes. Maybe once or twice a month, he drank a couple of beers at his local bar. By no means overweight, he had a desk job in a corporate culture where no one dared to take a lunch hour. With two teenage boys and a wife waiting for him at home each night, he didn’t take the time to work out either, other than on the weekends.
For this reason, whenever the weather was pleasant, Ed walked part of the way home from work as a way to slip a little exercise into his daily routine. It was easy; instead of diving into the nearest subway station, he would walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and then board a train on the other side and ride the rest of the way to his neighborhood crowded in with the other commuters, tinny music coming from their headphones, reading stories from the NY Daily News. The weather had been stormy earlier in the month. It was a relief when spring finally showed herself in new clothes, warm and bright.
Approaching the bridge, Ed felt a little lightheaded and slowed his pace. Among the many people climbing the stairs beside him were women and men dressed in “business casual,” the occasional suit and brief case. No matter what their title or circumstance, all were headed home after another day spent in a downtown office building. Those walking in the opposite direction appeared to be tourists for the most part. A certain excited gleam, if not the obvious cameras, gave them away. He avoided meeting their glance.
As he crested the bridge, Ed turned to feast on the view. Against the evening sky the mass of buildings looked flat, absent of 3D life he knew to be contained inside, glittering with artificial lights that created a meaningless glamour and belied the gravity of their purpose. He felt a little dizzy but assumed this feeling was caused by the scene.
As he neared the bottom of the bridge, he felt a small tug inside his chest that extended through his shoulder and arm. The feeling was like a muscle strain both familiar and unrecognizable at once. Oddly, he understood immediately, intuitively that he was experiencing a heart attack. Clutching his chest in the manner of someone trying to keep broken pieces from falling apart, he paused and turned halfway to see who was walking nearest him. A youngish man passed him walking at a brisk pace. Next, a pair of bicycles whizzed by, and then a plain-faced woman in an ill-fitting black suit came into view. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” Ed said to her in a quiet voice. He had barely heard himself above the sound of traffic passing below them on the bridge.
Her eyes narrowed slightly before widening with surprise.
“Or the beginnings of one. I can still walk,” he said, his hands still held to his chest.
She extracted a phone from her pocket, dialed, and spoke briefly to the 911 operator, turning her back to him as she spoke, her words disappearing on the wind. After hanging up, she fumbled through her pocketbook and handed him an aspirin she had awkwardly removed from a plastic child-protected-cap bottle. Then the woman escorted him, as he later explained to his wife, holding him by his upper arm the way you would with someone very old or very drunk (or both), until they reached the bottom of the bridge. He felt afraid as she helped ease him to the curb, his heart now pounding as erratically as a jazz drummer inside his chest. Saying little, she waited standing there beside him in the littered street. (She wore black tights.) The ambulance arrived about the instant he thought he might just try to walk again. Strapped to a gurney listening to the siren’s wail, he realized he’d forgotten to ask the woman’s name.
Ed told me his story as he sat beside me in the back of a town hall meeting at work. While department heads discussed bottom lines in amplified tones, Ed told me how he’d spent a couple of days in the hospital while his doctors ran tests. In the end, his myocardial infarction had not done enough damage to warrant surgery, so he was advised to take a couple of weeks at home and get plenty of rest while his heart healed. After his release from the hospital, he began taking the medication his doctor said he’d be on for the rest of his life, and then started his new diet — fish instead of meat and lots of veggies — along with a daily exercise plan.
His doctor’s approach is typical for those who have suffered a myocardial infarction. Ed’s quiet relatively non-dramatic heart attack — where the heart never completely fails, where surgery is not required — is somewhat common. Still, these milder forms of disease still leave behind some scarring and damage. Those who suffer “silent heart attacks” — experiencing no symptoms whatsoever — may be at greater risk of future heart problems due to the fact that they remain unaware of the damage done and so do not address the issue. Heart disease, after all, is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.
About half of all Americans have at least one of the three highest risk factors: high blood pressure, high LDL (bad) cholesterol, and smoking. Other medical conditions or lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, obesity or overweight, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive drinking. In the U.S., nearly 600,000 people die of heart disease every year, or one out of every four deaths. To learn more about the less dramatic version of a heart attack, watch this YouTube video: