52 Things I’m Thankful for on My 52nd Birthday

52-highsOne thing about nearly dying is that it makes you appreciate life more. It may sound cliche, but there was a time not too long ago when I wasn’t sure I’d make it to 52. And even though it’s not a nice round number like 50 or 55, I still feel like celebrating simply waking up for another birthday. Happy 52nd birthday to me.

Even for those who did not have a near-death experience, the world sure seems to be coming apart at the seams. Things feel pretty dire. We have a lunatic in the White House. The world looks to Germany for moral authority. The climate is changing so rapidly that huge chunks of the polar caps are falling off and melting into the sea. The American wage gap is getting wider. Americans are getting wider. Kids keep getting gunned down at schools. The U.S. Men’s National Team didn’t make the World Cup!

Yet even still, perhaps because I have been consciously trying to pay less attention to politics and the news, I feel like I have a lot for which to be thankful (including knowing how not to end a sentence with a preposition).

I’m not really going to tick off 52 things I’m thankful for as I turn 52 (not because I can’t come up with 52, but because I don’t think you’d read through a list that long). I am, however, going to hit some high notes.

  • First and foremost, my heart is strong and while it will never be fully recovered it is pumping within the normal range (ejection fraction at 55). My arteries are clear. I recovered completely from the little stroke I had last year with no permanent deficiencies. Aside from a few normal age-related aches and pains, I’m in pretty good health given my history.
  • I have a loving wife/best friend who treats me like a king despite my often whiny personality. In a few months, we’ll be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary.
  • We have raised a remarkable son who at 20 is wise beyond his years. He may still be trying to find himself, but he’ll never be lost.
  • I live in a wonderful town in a perfect townhouse in a great neighborhood.
  • For the first time in my life, I can truly say I love my job. I had a great year raising money for the American Heart Association and I am honored to be able to do this work for a living. Strange way to find a calling, but I’ll take it.
  • Despite some ups and down this year, my mom, dad, and sister are doing well (as well as can be expected given they all live in Tucson now).
  • We’re doing well enough financially to afford to travel more and are starting to tick off our bucket list one by one.
  • I have great friends both online and in real life.
  • The heart attack support network I founded on Facebook has grown from a handful of survivors in Phoenix to nearly 3,500 across the globe.
  • I serve my community as a board member of a great nonprofit that unites, strengthens and advances the state’s nonprofit sector.
  • The Suns have the first pick in the NBA Draft tonight and will finally land the “big man” they’ve always needed. The Padres are not winning, but they are on the right track with a great young core and some special players almost ready for the big leagues. The Cardinals drafted a QB of the future. No team I’ve ever rooted for has ever won a world championship — but that will change in the next few years. Go Cardinals. Go Padres. Go Suns.
  • I have found a new passion in soccer and have become a rabid fan. Seriously, I wake up early every weekend during the season to watch Arsenal play.

All this is to say that I’m living a great life. It’s nothing like the life I imagined I’d be living in my 50s, but it’s great nonetheless. And despite world events, my own life is really good. And I’m grateful. And I need to remind myself to share that fact more often, and certainly not just on my birthday.

I’m a heart attack and stroke survivor and I’m grateful for everything I have in this world.

I Was the Last to Know I Was Having a Stroke

Last spring I had a stroke. It feels weird writing these words, because truth be told I haven’t really shared this with too many people. When I had a heart attack in 2011 I shouted the news from the virtual mountaintop that is social media, but for some reason I’ve kept the stroke news closer to the vest. I think maybe I’ve been reluctant to share the stroke story because I’m still in denial about it and frankly it scared me more than I’d like to admit. More than the heart attack. I’ll tell you why.

My stroke occurred more than five years post heart attack, and in those five years I’d been doing everything in my power to take good care of my cardiovascular system. I had been eating right, taking my medications, exercising regularly, and keeping my cholesterol in check. I’d been going to the cardiologist every six months and having all the appropriate tests — stress tests, echo-cardiograms, blood work. I was in as good a condition as any heart attack survivor could expect. I let my guard down. So the last thing I expected last April 30 was a stroke.

I was helping my parents move into a new apartment in Tucson when it happened, but I didn’t know anything was wrong. I was moving boxes and clothes between the rental truck and the apartment when apparently I began slurring my words. My niece said later she thought I was being silly. My mother said she thought I was making fun of someone. My brother-in-law, however, was the first to notice something was not right. He was handing me a box from the back of the truck and evidently he yelled for my wife to come quickly.

My wife took one look at me and called 9–1–1. I was telling her to relax and that I was fine while she was on the phone with the 9–1–1 operator telling her that I was slurring my word and that the entire left side of my face had fallen. I assured her I was fine. The look on her face was of pure terror. She told me to sit down and be quiet.

The paramedics arrived within minutes and I guess by then the symptoms had already gone away. I listened to my family tell them what had happened and I honestly thought they were nuts. I was fine. They took my blood pressure and asked a few more questions, then let me know they’d be taking me to the hospital to be safe. I then got my second ambulance ride in the past five years.

At the hospital they ran some more tests and surmised I’d had what’s called a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. Basically a TIA is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain. A TIA is like a stroke, producing similar symptoms, but it usually lasts only a few minutes and causes no permanent damage. Unfortunately, after a few more tests, including an MRI of my brain, the truth was I did indeed suffer a stroke. A small stroke, but a stroke nonetheless. Additionally, one of my carotid arteries was 100 percent blocked. And despite my insistence that I was fine and more than well enough to fly to London in two days for a long-planned European vacation, I would not be going home for a few days and I would not be seeing Big Ben anytime soon.

Without going into too much detail, the next several weeks included more tests, a visit to my cardiologist back home in Phoenix, a visit to a vascular surgeon to confirm the carotid artery blockage, a visit to an electrophysiologist to rule out that the stroke was caused by a clot as a result of atrial fibrillation (AFib), and a trip to the cath lab to see if I had any other new blocked arteries.

None of these doctors could fully explain why I’d had a stroke. The vascular surgeon thought the stroke was likely caused by a spontaneous dissection of my carotid artery, meaning the blockage was the result of a random tear in my artery. The electrical guy pretty much ruled out AFib. The cardiologist who did my cath said my heart and surrounding arteries were clear and it was unlikely that the stroke was caused by a clot emanating from my heart.

All of this was good news actually, because the biggest concern for me was that despite all the work I’d been doing to keep my arteries clear (i.e. diet, exercise, medications) I was still producing sticky artery-blocking plaque. I was terrified that all my hard work was to be for naught, and in fact that fact alone caused me to fall into a pretty serious funk in the weeks following the stroke. I was sure my body was a plaque-making machine and that I was doomed to die an early death. I’m not typically a doom and gloom guy, but I actually started looking into burial plans so in case I kicked the bucket my wife wouldn’t have to worry about the details. Morbid I know, but that’s where my head was. And by the way, when you reach a certain age it’s actually a good idea to discuss your death wishes with your loved one, but that’s a story for another blog post.

The last specialist I saw was a neurologist, and his assessment was that the vascular guy was probably right — I’d had a dissection. And a few weeks later when another MRI showed that my carotid artery was no longer fully blocked but in fact mostly open, we all agreed that I did indeed have a dissection. In layman’s terms, this means I had a stroke because for some unknown reason my carotid artery decided to tear and as a result a small clot traveled to my brain and cut off the blood supply long enough to cause slurred speech and face droop. Yep, it was a freak accident and probably had nothing to do with my heart disease history aside from the possibility that my carotid artery may have been a little weaker due to plaque build up. Basically, there was nothing I could have done to prevent it, but it wasn’t likely to ever happen again.

Boy did I feel…lucky? I’d cheated death for the second time in five years. Let’s hope the third time is not the charm.

So why share this now, after nine months? Well, this week many of the best medical minds in the world are gathering in Los Angeles for the International Stroke Conference, the world’s largest meeting dedicated to the science and treatment of cerebrovascular disease. Yet I bet you had no idea stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in America.

I don’t think many of us think about stroke, or even really know what a stroke is. There are various kinds of strokes with different causes, and you can learn a lot on the American Stroke Association website. But really what I’d like to get across is that 80 percent of strokes are preventable through diet and exercise as well as by keeping an eye on the warning signs like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and more.

I’d also like to spread the word about the warning signs of stroke — the things my wife and family noticed about me that lead them to call 9–1–1. The warning signs of stroke are: face drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulty. One or all of these symptoms means it’s time to call 9–1–1. Knowing these signs can save a life.