The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself. The idea of causing a fuss weighed on my mind. But, the signs and symptoms were screaming at me. Pain and tightness spread across my chest and upper shoulders and radiated down my left arm. Cold sweat formed on my forehead, and I felt shortness of breath, indigestion and nausea.
I walked the airplane aisle to the bathroom and splashed water on my face. Didn’t help. Walked back to my seat. Decision time. “This cannot be happening to me, I’m the guy who runs or walks 3-5 miles every day.” Looked up at the call button, hesitated — I thought, “We’re only 30 minutes out of Seattle; maybe this will get better.” But something inside my head said, “Stop fooling yourself.” I reached up and hit the button, an act that likely saved my life.
Because I did, the Alaska Airlines crew was able to identify a nurse on the plane to take my blood pressure — her eyes got really wide when she saw the result — and to call paramedics near SeaTac to come and wait at the gate. The paramedics came on the plane while other passengers stayed seated — a big thanks to everyone for their patience — and I walked out to the gate with them. They performed an electrocardiogram, looked at it and said, “Yeah, you’re not going home tonight,” and then called medics to transport me to the nearby hospital.
As a result of my decision to risk embarrassment and hit that call button, minutes later, when I went into cardiac arrest, I had five medics/paramedics standing around me. I remember looking up at them from my back on the floor and realizing what had happened. Those guys saved my life and I owe them my thanks—even if they did cut open my favorite shirt.
I had a myocardial infarction — in layman’s terms, a heart attack. It was caused by a sudden blockage of blood flow in my right coronary artery. Apparently, I had a partial blockage due to a buildup of plaque — think cholesterol. It was small enough that I had no prior symptoms and had easily walked my three miles that very afternoon before I boarded my flight home. But that small buildup of plaque ruptured and became a full blockage.
I now have two stents in my heart to keep the coronary artery open and I currently get around a little slower. And, sadly, I had to give up my Jolly Ranchers as well as ice cream. But I am alive and feeling very blessed. I celebrated my 60th birthday that very night. On arrival at the operating room, the staff kept asking me “How old are you,” and I kept answering, “What time is it?” This repeated a couple times. I think they thought I was delusional until I finally said “Look, if it’s after midnight then I’m 60.” They wished me a happy birthday. What a party.
So, what are the lessons to be learned? Take care of your heart. Get checked regularly by your doctor — have your blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure checked, and eat healthy — cut back on sugar and consume less carbs and salt. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Know the symptoms of a heart attack: discomfort, pressure or heaviness in the chest, arm or below your breastbone; discomfort radiating to the back, jaw, throat or arm; fullness, indigestion, heartburn, or choking feelings; sweating, nausea, vomiting or dizziness; extreme weakness, anxiety or shortness of breath; and rapid or irregular heartbeats.
If you experience these symptoms, don’t worry about making a fuss; let someone know or call for help. Better to experience a little embarrassment than to risk losing your life. And for goodness sake, remember to smile, lose the frowns, love on your family, spread some happiness, appreciate your friends and keep your lists and ledgers short — seek and offer forgiveness quickly and often.
Life is fragile and very short. So, make it count while you can and enjoy the ride. God bless!
Kevin Clarkson is the attorney general for the state of Alaska. He was formerly a partner at Anchorage-based law firm Brena, Bell and Clarkson.
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