By Rachael Tolliver: Ireland Army Health Clinic PAO, Fort Knox KYFebruary 19, 2019
Prior to 2016, to me Heart Health Month meant it was a good time to ask dad if he had gotten a physical lately--he had a quintuple heart bypass in 2008--and schedule my own physical. Since my birthday is in March, I always do it then.
But Thanksgiving of 2016 changed all that.
My dad's side of the family has, plainly put-- heart issues. My paternal grandmother had high blood pressure, had her carotid artery cleared at least once and in the end passed from congestive heart failure. My grandfather also had high blood pressure and suffered two strokes--the one that killed him occurred in his early 60's.
Both my uncles--who were heavy smokers all their lives--died from heart failure/attack and neither one of them made it past the age of 55. Neither of them ate very healthy. My aunt--dad's only sister, also had her carotid cleared, had at least one heart by-pass, suffered from angina, and high blood pressure. As a heavy smoker most of her life, she developed COPD in her later years, and last June the COPD was what killed her--we were with her at hospice.
I write this to give you the heart-no-so-healthy picture of my father's side of the family.
I have always eaten healthy. I know smoking is bad for you and I have never even tried it. And I have always enjoyed being physically active. But, I am only one of five, and we span the spectrum. There is me at one end and my youngest sister and my brother who spent their youth and early adulthood "not being so good," at the other.
I got a call Sunday morning, just before Thanksgiving. My sister said we all needed to meet at my parents' house--three hours north of us--and it was an emergency. She wouldn't give me any other details except to trust her and say we would need to make some decisions.
My mind immediately went to my parents. Dad took care of mom--she has dementia--and sometimes the stress was almost more than he could handle. This is why we were grateful that my brother spent several months out of each year with them and my youngest sister drove over each week to help--they were my dad's relief.
We made the drive in record time, quickly went into the house in which we spent most of our youth, and found everyone gathered in the family room. Except mom--which gave me reason to panic. My brother and youngest sister weren't there yet, and I knew my brother was visiting a friend in Louisville.
The mood was dark…no dry eyes. And to see my father's face, I just knew the "decisions" we were going to make had to do with something terrible that just happened to mom. But no, they told me she was in the bedroom taking a nap.
My sisters asked me to sit down, my dad held my hand--and they told me my brother had passed from a massive heart attack that Friday night. He was at his friend's house who immediately started CPR and called 911. But there was nothing anyone could do.
His friend had spent all the next day trying to figure out how to contact us. He knew where my sister worked, found her online profile and that's how she happened to get the call, from a complete stranger.
I can't begin to tell you how painful that day was. Or the remaining year. Someone you are so close to, with no warning is violently removed from your life…I felt like my heart was ripped out, a lung and part of an arm with it. To hear how it all went down, and we weren't there to help, was also difficult.
And, emotionally, it got worse. Since he didn't have his wallet on him--it was locked in his truck's glove compartment--we had to identify him, after the autopsy, before we could cremate him. It's something you don't ever think you'll do, and there is no way under heaven to prepare. Because he never told us what he would want when he passed, and we knew he hated the dark, disliked tight places and would want to be buried with our father, the decision was cremation.
He was only 42, the funniest stand-up comedian not doing standup, generous to a fault--especially to strangers, an animal lover, expert gardener, equine massage therapist, and a much-in-demand CNA.
He was my baby brother. And we'd lost him.
I had been trying to text him for several days--in fact, the morning he passed I had sent him a text. In our last discussion he didn't feel great, sounded depressed--his life wasn't going the way he wanted. And, he couldn't pin-point it, but he felt like something was wrong.
This was preventable. Yes, we have genetics against us--but that is only a fraction of what good heart health comes down to.
Do you smoke? STOP! Do you "party"--STOP! "Partying" negatively effects your cardiovascular system. What's your diet like and do you exercise? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you drinking enough water? And for goodness sake, get a yearly physical.
No one is saying the occasional dressed burger or sugary dessert is going to bring you down. And the occasional glass of wine--some doctors encourage it. And you don't have to be a tri-athlete to exercise and be active--find something you like and move!
However if you don't pay attention to anything else, think about this: The pain and emotional turmoil caused by having you ripped out of the lives of your family and friends, and all the pain that goes with it is something you won't be around to comfort.
You need to take care of you. People rely on you--you are important to those who love you.
For those of us left behind, that is a kind of heart-ache that never goes away.