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One more cheeseburger and I could be dead!

by J.W. Miller on 05/29/17

What you are about to read is personal and I hope instructive. And, yes, it does touch on the periphery of sports in order to qualify for my tax exemption as a sporting columnist. I wish! Nearly three months ago, on the day after Mardi Gras, I was at the beach on my normal three-mile morning run when I was stopped by an intense pain in my chest. It wasn’t the first time it happened, even that week, but I had soldiered on in the tradition of big, strong, invincible men!

A year ago, I was driving through Alabama when I experienced a similar pain, this one lasting about 30 minutes. It was so intense that I started looking for an exit with the blue-and-white “H” sign that indicated a hospital was nearby. When I finally saw that sign, the pain had eased, and I kept driving. When I got home, a stress test showed nothing abnormal, so I went on with my life. I experienced minor episodes since then, but none that I, in my stubborn deniability, believed merited attention. After all, I run three miles a day, have a good diet and have taken cholesterol medicine for nearly 20 years. If that’s not a season ticket to perfect health, I don’t know what is! 

But the hereditary wild card is a factor. My father had two heart attacks six months apart at age 52 in the era when cholesterol medications were not fashionable and lived to be 84. Even as I was walking back from my run on post-Mardi Gras morning the pain eased and I said to myself this couldn’t be anything as mortal as heart trouble, could it? When I got back, I told the Lovely Miss Jean what had happened, not just that morning but earlier in the week. She handed me the phone and dialed my internist who directed me to the nearest emergency room. 

Six hours later in a Pensacola hospital, I was introduced to the heart attack protocol. They took blood, my EKG, checked my BP, and damn near everything else short of my ERA or RBI! I was admitted and the next morning was ordered to undergo a nuclear stress test in which they inject dye and put you on the treadmill. The nuclear test is supposed to be far more accurate than the traditional treadmill test, and I smoked it! Max time, max elevation and no pain! The cardiologist said that was a good thing, because that test is 93% accurate. He said the result did not merit further cardiac testing such as an angiogram and suggested the pain might be gastro-intestinal. 

When we returned home the next week, my internist at Ochsner agreed that it did not sound like a heart issue, but to be safe he recommended a two-pronged approach, so he referred me to specialists in cardiac and gastro-intestinal medicine. Of course, by now I’m resisting any more testing. After all, I’m feeling pretty good, and I even started running again with little to no discomfort. But “little to no” isn’t perfect, and Jean grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and scheduled the tests. 

First came the cardiologist, who became the third doctor to suggest that my issue did not sound like a traditional heart problem. But, he said, we want to be certain, so he scheduled a cardiac CT scan. In the meantime, the GI doctor scheduled an endoscopy which revealed a small hiatal hernia but nothing that would suggest the pain I experienced. I was looking forward to hearing the cardiac CT results so I could put this whole thing behind me and chalk it up to stress. We had sold our house in New Orleans, which upset our kids, and we were building a new house and were living from relative to relative in the meantime, and my new book was coming out, and with it the pending book signings and travel.  Our lives had been anything but normal. 

And it got even less normal when my cardiologist called and said I had a 70% blockage in an artery that takes blood from the heart. WHOA! A slap upside the head! He referred me to a cardiac surgeon who scheduled an angiogram that only compounded my anxiety. When he went in, he found a second blockage that showed another artery was 90% blocked, and the aorta leading to the heart appeared to be enlarged. DOUBLE WHOA! He scheduled a second CT scan that showed an expanded view of the heart region. Thankfully, that CT showed the aorta was on the “high side of normal” and not a major concern, but it did confirm the two blockages. 

So last Friday, I went in for an angioplasty. I felt like a pin cushion when they wheeled me into the OR with my left arm festooned with IV’s and the news that they were not going through the right arm as they had the first angiogram but through the groin. That conjured up all kinds of horrible visions, from getting hit in the privates when you’re horsing around in school to “just what part of the groin are we talking about?” 

When the doctor went in, he found good news and more serious news. The blockage in the first artery was not as severe as initially believed. He conducted a test that showed blood flow was normal, so he left that for monitoring. However, the “90%” blockage discovered by the second CT scan was actually “95-99%” blocked! That told me I was probably one double cheeseburger and curly fries away from the forever after! He put a stent in that artery, and, thankfully, the blood flowed normally. As I write this, I still have some pain from the incision which, thankfully, was made to the right and above the area of my greatest concern, but I am, at least as far as the current crisis, healed! 

Having told you my story, let me leave you with some advice if you ever experience chest pain: 1. Don’t believe a simple stress test is definitive, because being in good shape can actually mask the underlying problem; 2. If you pass a test that is termed 93% accurate, consider that you could be one of those poor slobs in the 7%; 3. When a doctor suggests further testing “just to be safe,” listen! 4. Share your ailments, no matter how insignificant, with your spouse, who in my case was my electric cattle prod into action, and 5. Yes, it can happen to even big strong boys and girls like you! 

The diligence of my doctors at Ochsner Medical Center to get to the bottom of my pain might be the only reason I’ll be back on the trail soon! Thank you!

Comments (8)

1. Dennis McSeveney said on 5/29/17 - 09:19AM
Jim -- Keep listening to Ms. Jean and the physicians. I just shared this with Nance who wondered why I kept letting Ochsner run tests after an allergic reaction to a medication hammered my liver enzymes. I didn't want to be in the 7% of the false negative tests. I'm glad they found and fixed you (so to speak).
2. Les said on 5/29/17 - 10:37AM
Great advice Jim. I am happy to hear that you got "taken care of" and am going to be around for a great deal longer! Take care buddy! Happy Memorial Day!
3. Houston said on 5/29/17 - 11:02AM
That was interesting and informative. I was surprised with the test results because of 20 years of cholesterol medicine. Thanks for sharing. Take care and stay well. Enjoy your columns very much.
4. Dave said on 5/29/17 - 12:35PM
Whew! Glad you're OK.
5. Chris Taylor said on 5/29/17 - 12:59PM
Jim, Glad you listened to your wife and that you are feeling better! Some very good advice for all of us who have made it this far & don't like seeing doctors...... Stay well!!
6. Bob mcDowell said on 5/29/17 - 01:10PM
Hope you are doing OK! As I'm sure your aware you are approaching a new set of numbers that begin with the number 7!!!! Take care, Bob
7. Todd Purnell said on 6/5/17 - 02:54PM
Wow Jim! Glad to read to the happy ending! I'm thankful for "Miss Jean" and her persistence. Keep up the goooood work; I enjoy reading your blog.
8. Steve Doyle said on 6/8/17 - 08:43AM
I was behind on my reading! Stunned to see and read this but glad you got the diagnosis and treatment. That is scary to think you passed such significant stress tests and obfuscated the blockage. Be healthy! The world needs of your contributions.

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