One year ago today my heart stopped beating. No, I did not become a vampire, but for a few hours there was total unconsciousness. No dreaming. No movement. No memory. I went to sleep not knowing if I would wake up again, and when I woke up the fatigue was so great my memory is fuzzy, but detailed—a series of sharp images and the activity around me. It must have been the morphine drug cocktail. Still, I remember quite clearly my first conscious thought upon waking: get that damn breathing tube out! Nearly panic stricken, through a series of gestures well-honed from years of debate, I made it quite clear that I was…uncomfortable.

Removing the breathing tube was the first step in my recovery. The next step was the banana popsicle, which was the only food I could keep down for the first two days before I was forced to eat solid food again—just a couple small bites of jello or turkey of the blandest kind. But on the second day, I started walking again three times a day. It was very painful at first, especially being connected to all the tubes, monitoring devices, and I.V.s. But by day four I was walking a couple hundred feet with relative ease and no support or assistance. On day five I went home, driven by my father to the Walmart for meds, and then home.

I spent the next two weeks lying on the couch in front of the television set, watching Pawn Stars and Man vs. Food marathons because despite popular belief, there really isn’t anything on 200 channels of cable television.

Slowly, my appetite returned, my movement got better, sneezing wasn’t the worst imaginable pain pulling every chest muscle out of wack anymore. 24 days after my surgery, 19 days after I left the hospital, I returned to work.

Having gone through the experience of a heart attack, bypass surgery and recovery I am at once profoundly changed and at the same time incredibly lucky. There was less than 5% damage to my heart and my heart is functioning absolutely normally. I have zero physical restrictions and am on minimal medications. Other than the scars running down the middle of my chest and on my left leg, no one would ever be able to tell I had bypass surgery. It could have been a lot worse.

In cardiac rehab, I met men both younger and older than myself. Every single one of them struggled with the most basic physical tasks. They had trouble lifting five-pound weights, trouble walking on the treadmill, trouble stretching, trouble breathing. One man, Floyd, even had to be taken to the ER twice during the three months of rehab sessions. In contrast, I was maxing out the treadmill and exercise bikes effortlessly and would have been running full out if it were allowed. The other men looked at me with obvious longing for a heart that was still young and strong, and perhaps with some regret for some of the choices they had made in life. While it would seem that I’ve been given a do-over, I regret those same choices.

Some days, I look in the mirror and wonder about the choices I have made and the path I took to get to where I am now. The poor choices I have made are so obvious now, but they are by no means atypical of choices most Americans make every single day when they grab that Coke from the vending machine down the hall, stop at a McDonald’s drive thru while running lunchtime errands, stopping at Krispy Kreme when they flash their “Hot Donuts” neon sign or ordering that Dominos pizza for dinner because it’s already 7:30 when you get home from work or the gym and you don’t have time or the energy to cook, especially with the game starting in fifteen minutes.

As long as my bypassed arteries stay clear of plaque buildup, I’m in great shape. But I’m still angry with myself that I didn’t pay more attention to my health. My mother had a massive heart attack eight years ago that almost ended her life at the age of 63. My father has had issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, and has had stents. Both my grandfathers had heart attacks, and my father’s father died immediately from his.

But as of one year prior to my heart attack and bypass surgery, my EKG was normal so because of my relatively young age, 44, at the time of the EKG, no doctor had ever ordered a stress test. The crazy thing though is that you can have an 80% blockage in a coronary artery and still have a normal EKG. And what is even crazier is that my cardiologist found that my heart attack last year was NOT my first heart attack. Apparently I had suffered a really minor one at some point in the past and I never even knew it happened. Talk about a wake-up call.

Unfortunately, it’s still a struggle every single day to eat healthy, to get the right exercise, to get the right amount of sleep and rest. Even with what I know. Fast food, fried food, soft drinks, most candy are now gone from my diet, and as of this week I’m back in the gym working out again. But most Americans keep doing what they’ve always done, oblivious to or disregarding the risks of their behaviors to their own health.

Our government is doing every American a great disservice by not doing a far better job in working to promote better health. We all know cigarette smoking is harmful, so cigarette advertising and warning labels are strictly regulated. Why isn’t McDonald’s under the same scrutiny when we all know Big Macs are not among the healthiest food options out there? And why are Coke and Pepsi products allowed to be sold in school vending machines? Even Gatorade contains excess sodium that no one needs in their diet unless they are an extreme athlete. Water really does suffice.

On this, my first anniversary since my heart stopped beating and started beating again, I strongly encourage all my friends, coworkers and everyone I know to make an appointment with a cardiologist. Assess your heart health and know the risk factors and what you can do to prevent a heart attack and bypass surgery.

They say out of sight, out of mind, and in terms of our heart, it is usually out of sight and out of mind—until it decides to demand your attention. When that happens, time has run out. Emergency intervention is needed to survive. And then, your life becomes a conscious decision every single hour—do what’s right for your heart, or suffer the consequences. I urge all of you, on this Memorial Day, to think about your heart health. In addition to taking time to remember and honor our fallen heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice, remember those other fallen heroes in our lives: parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children and friends whose lives were cut short because of choices that were made in disregard to their own heart health.

Thanks for reading.

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