“The first sign or symptom of cardiovascular disease can be chest pain – or your first heart attack. DAN diving fatality statistics reveal many cases of sudden death due to cardiovascular disease with no prior history of it.”-Dr. James L. Caruso on Cardiovascular Fitness and Diving from the July/August 1999 issue of Alert Diver
Sometimes when you least expect it, life throws you a curveball… I was on my way back to the Philippines after spending 2 months in the US. I was changing planes in Singapore on Thanksgiving Day for the final leg of my trip which had started in Houston. When my flight landed, my connecting flight to Manila was already boarding. I ran from the terminal where I landed to the terminal where my connecting flight was leaving from. A few minutes after reaching the gate I suffered a heart attack!
I’m very fortunate that it happened on the ground and not in the air (or even worse while diving). It turns out that I’m lucky to be alive. In spite of the pain, (picture your chest being crushed in a gigantic vise and your left arm going completely numb) I stayed conscious through the whole ordeal. A paramedic came to the gate and then a doctor. I was rushed by ambulance to Changi General Hospital.
“Cardiovascular events cause 20 to 30 percent of all deaths that occur while scuba diving.”-Dr. James L. Caruso on Cardiovascular Fitness and Diving from the July/August 1999 issue of Alert Diver
I spent 5 days in Changi General Hospital here in Singapore. Upon arrival at the emergency room, they confirmed that I was having a heart attack and a bad one! This I had already figured out! I was rolled into the Cath Lab. The heart attack was being caused by a 100% blockage in my Left Anterior Descending, the main artery that feeds the heart! The type of heart attack they call a STEMI. They performed a balloon angioplasty and inserted a stent to reopen the artery. They also discovered that I have 2 other blockages. One is 50% and the other 80% which will require later treatment. The priority obviously was to clear the one that triggered the heart attack! They performed the angioplasty by inserting a catheter through my wrist and into my heart.
My cardiologist told me the day I was released from the hospital that I shouldn’t be in denial and that it was unlikely that I would ever dive again. I think I’ll be getting a 2nd opinion on that though! The damage was extensive I was told, but it will be a few months before we can see how much I can recover. I’ve had conversations with two friends who were able to come back to diving after a heart attack. I know every case is individual, but I’m hopeful that I’ve not made my last dive yet!
I was told to expect to be on blood thinners for at least a year. After that, I can probably get by with taking a daily aspirin. I will need to pass a pretty extensive physical and stress test before I can be cleared to dive again. No guarantees but I’m going to give it my best shot!
My case was a bit unusual. I’m an active person. I had completed over 100 dives in the Philippines between October 2015 and September 2016. My cholesterol was high but my blood pressure was in the normal range and I’d had a checkup earlier in the year and a normal ECG. My weight is a bit high but not excessive. In 2012, the year I retired from the Navy, I was 185 lbs and spending a lot of gym time when I wasn’t working. At the time of the heart attack, I was around 193 lbs at a height of 5′ 11″. Heavy, but still within the height/weight standard I had to meet when on active duty with the Navy. I’m a non-smoker. I had a stress test 10 years ago but was told my heart was fine. I did suffer occasional chest pain but I’d put this down to reflux (I have GERD and have been on medication for it off and on for years). Because of the stress test I had a tendency to write off chest pain as reflux. With three blockages, apparently at least some of that chest pain was not GERD!
One of my close friends who is also a diver told me it’s a wake-up call for all of us (especially “Baby Boomers” and a big chunk of “Generation X”). The importance of regular checkups and staying fit becomes even more important as we get older. I’ve discovered this the hard way!
For now, I’m killing time here in Singapore until I go back to the doctor to see if they will clear me to fly. That will be on the 13th. I’m still adjusting but I’m thankful that I’m here to be able to go through that!