my husband and I

His and her story: Surviving heart disease, getting a second chance at life

By Chris and Melissa LeGates

His story:  Support the AMA. You may need them someday; I did at 48

I am two years shy of 50. So when I experienced shooting pains going through my arms while watching television this July 4, I thought it would pass.

Then all the sudden, it literally felt like an elephant jumped on my chest. I could barely breathe, and I told my wife to take me to the hospital.

I know – bad idea! I already got the lecture at the hospital from the nurses: always call for an ambulance. So why didn’t I?

Well the short answer is I never suspected I was having a heart attack.

Abnormal symptoms

For the past year, doctors had been trying to find the origin of those shooting pains, especially in my elbows. Three different doctors had diagnosed me with pinched nerves and essentially told me there was nothing I could do except take medicine to ease the inflammation or get surgery. I didn’t want to get surgery so I just put up with the pain.

My blood pressure was good and my cholesterol was low.

Other than smoking (and eating crappy food as my wife liked to point out often), I was healthy as an ox – or so I thought.

Unimaginable pain

On the way to the hospital, the pain got worse. I kept chanting over and over again, “Please just let me get to the hospital. Don’t let me die.”

I couldn’t even walk into the ER. I collapsed on the sidewalk outside, and I literally couldn’t move my arms and legs.

My wife ran inside, and nurses came out to wheel me in to the ER.

From there, it felt like an eternity until they gave me something to relieve the pain. In reality, it was probably about a half an hour of pure torture waiting for test results.

Initially, they told us there was an abnormality on the EKG but they didn’t think I was having a heart attack.

Then they gave me morphine, and I was half in and out of consciousness. I just kept saying “Thank you. Thank you”. I was just happy to get rid of that pain.

Then about an hour later, they came back in and said the test showed blood markers for a heart attack, and they were calling in the cardio cath lab to open me up and check for a blockage.

My wife says I signed paperwork and verbally gave them permission to do surgery, but I honestly don’t remember any of it.

I woke up in a hospital bed the next morning without my clothes and my wife…wondering what the heck had happened. I had no idea I even had an operation until the nurse told me.

The next two days were scary.

Surviving a widow maker heart attack

I had experienced a widow maker heart attack, which means the largest valve in my heart was completely blocked. They say most people don’t survive a widow maker, hence the nickname.

That is sobering to know that if I hadn’t made it to the hospital when I did I would be dead.

The next day I was told my heart was only operating at 30 percent of its strength. I didn’t like hearing that.

I’m too young! This cannot be happening

I cannot say I never thought about this day coming. I think every smoker does in the back of their mind, but I did not think I would have to deal with health stuff like this until at least 20 years from now.

I have smoked ever since I was 16. Through the years, I would tell myself I had time to quit smoking and repair my body before I got old.

I even watched my step-father die from smoke-related cancer and environmental poisoning in his 50s.

It devastated my mother.

When he was dying in the hospital, he begged me to stop smoking but of course I didn’t.

Smoking was cool.

It was what my friends and many of my family members were doing in the 1980s. It is what my co-workers and I did to release stress at break time every day since then.

All three of my children still smoke. We have had many of conversations over the lite end of a cigarette that we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Smoking is a low key way to bond with people and that is probably the hardest benefit to lose.

However, I am a Christian. I knew God didn’t want me to smoke, and I was slowly tearing down the temple He built. I was ashamed of my smoking but it still didn’t stop me from doing it.

I even quit for months at a time but I just never quite succeeded until the day of my heart attack.

A simple choice: Quite or Die?

The day after my emergency surgery the cardio doctor came in to visit me. He looked me and said, “Do you plan to quit smoking?” I said “yes” but I’m sure he has heard many patients say the same thing and not quit.

He replied, “Good. Because you can either quit smoking and live, or keep smoking and die. The choice is yours.”

I wish I could say I quit for God, my wife, kids or some other noble cause but I didn’t.

It was the pain.

Words don’t do it justice; I never want to go through that kind of pain again.

If I can change so can you!

It was time to make some serious changes in my life. Now, I am one of those annoying people that lecture others about smoking if they give me a half a chance.

My grandfather had a heart attack in his 50s and my uncle in his 40s. My dad is a survivor of heart disease as well.

After my grandfather had a heart attack, he became kind of a health fanatic. He watched what he ate and used to walk religiously to keep in shape. He lived another fifty years after his heart attack.

So I knew it could be done.

I feel great!

I currently feel better than I ever have in my life. People don’t believe me when I tell them I had a heart attack this summer.

I credit that to God bringing me through and the care from the nursing staff and the cardio rehab folks at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.

I was lucky, and I know it. Many people don’t get a second chance.

About 2,150 Americans die each day from these diseases, one every 40 seconds. Each one of those people had family and friends mourning them. That is a lot of unnecessary grief.

Here are a few more facts. Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans…# 1 killer.

More than 787,000 people in the U.S. died from heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases in 2010. That’s about one of every three deaths in America.

If I had to do it differently, I would have never picked up that first cigarette 30 some years ago but no one can turn back time.

What I can do is never pick up another cigarette again.

I pray my three children stop smoking now! I pray that my grandchildren never start! I pray that my friends and family kick the habit!

Support me: Please donate

And, I can support the American Heart Association.

That’s why two Saturdays from now (Oct. 18), I am walking for the AMA Southern Delaware Heart Walk in Georgetown.

So please consider donating money to my AMA page at http://bit.ly/1nYFmj6.

The American Heart Association provides people with information, inspiration, recipes and the latest research. You can check them out at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/.

Don’t become a statistic! Donate to AMA and choose life!

Her story:  Support heart disease survivors even if you want to strangle them

When my husband asked me to walk for the American Heart Association this October, I looked at him like he sprouted a third eye and jokingly said “who took over your body and where did you hide my husband?”

In many ways, it has felt like I’m married to another man than the one that had a heart attack this July 4th.

Actually this new and improved man is the one I thought I was marrying when we met on a dating web site years ago.

One of my chief criteria in a mate was absolutely no smoking.  My dad smoked in the house when I was growing up, and I hated it.

I vowed to never marry a smoker, and Chris reassured me he didn’t smoke anymore.

Big tobacco companies are the only ones who benefit from cigarettes and they are laughing all the way to the bank

We married in early November 2009. By late November, we faced a stressful family crisis and he resumed smoking.

I was livid but what could I do.

As a non-smoking spouse, you always feel like your significant other cares more about puffing up that expensive pack of cigarettes than they do you. The smoker, of course, doesn’t see it that way and feels you should support them no matter what.

It is a no win situation.

The only one who actually wins in the nicotine racket is the huge companies pushing cigarettes.

What other business can get their customers addicted, turn their teeth yellow until they fall out, and still people willing line up to pay them over a $100 to $200 a month for a product that ultimately maims or kills them?

It is called addiction; it is just a legal form of it.

We argued about his smoking often over the years but I finally gave up. I realized nagging him wouldn’t stop him so I turned my anger and concerns over to God. It wasn’t easy.

I also continued to pray and petition God for him to be released from this horrible cycle.

Almost widowed at 44

In the back of my mind, I feared I would be a widow by 50 because of his poor health choices. For some reason, I just carried those negative premonitions with me even though I know many smokers live into their 70s and 80s.

Ironically, my husband had bought Rick Warren’s new cookbook and Christian prayer guide called “The Daniel Plan” — on his own without my nagging or urging — a month earlier. He also got really interested in researching the Mediterrean diet.

I was ecstatic. My prayers were being answered, and we were all set to get healthy.

We had even outlined a specific timeline for him to quit smoking, for us to start this new lifestyle diet together and for both of us to start exercising more.

Then Boom out of nowhere I find myself watching my husband literally have a heart attack in front of me on a hospital bed in the Seaford ER.

I suspected on to the way to the hospital he was having a heart attack but we are so young it was hard to believe death was knocking at our door.

Sponge bath at 40

Two days later, we hit another milestone in our marriage, when I gave him a wet wipe “sponge” bath in his hospital room – and not the sexy kind either.

It was sobering to realize my husband was so weak, he couldn’t even bathe himself.

That is something most women don’t have to even think about until their 60s or later. We were in our 40s.

Both of us worried what else was in store for us?

At that point, he didn’t even know if he could work again – let alone ride a bike, run after our grandsons or travel around the world like we dreamed about.

Luckily for us, God still has more for him to do on this earth, and he has fully recovered.

He will have to take six different types of medicine for the rest of his life and carry nitroglycerin with him wherever he goes. But he is fine for now.

Halleluiah!

But for a few long hours that first night, I really didn’t know if he would die all alone on a cold, steel operating table or recover from this.

It is a horrible, numbing feeling and in the back of your mind lurks unexpressed anger.

Yes, I said anger.

My husband did this to himself. How could he be so selfish?

And the worst part is as a family member you aren’t even allowed to be outwardly angry because your loved one is in pain.  And, you are supposed to be nice to people in pain.

So instead I smiled, hugged him, kissed him but inside I just wanted to “lovingly” wack him a good one.

If I wasn’t so afraid it would stop his heart, I might have done it.

We aren’t helpless against heart disease

I know I am not the only one in this position so I wanted to tell my story to reassure men and women who love a smoker, there is hope!

I believe the most powerful thing you can do is to pray for those smokers in your life and just love on them.

Most smokers I have met don’t want to smoke (if they truly admit it) but feel powerless to stop (which they will never admit to anyone even themselves).

I also try to remember smoking isn’t the only risk factor for heart disease.

So is being over-weight, and I have struggled with yo-yo weight loss and gain all my life. I’m currently on the gain side.

I have never met a cupcake I don’t like.

So I know excessive sugar intake is another key factor in creating heart inflammation, as well as eating crappy, high cholesterol food.

It starts with you

In the end, the only thing you really can do is change your lifestyle and hope it rubs off on others.

Personally, we have completely eradicated soda from our house, although we drink it as a treat when we are out. Unfortunately, we still crave it; I pray those cravings go away someday.

Instead at home, we drink reduced-sugar iced tea and water.

Now I realize that is a crime in Sussex County where super-syrupy sweet tea (usually one to two cups of sugar per gallon) rules the day and pretzel salad is considered a side dish on the par with broccoli and green beans.

Just try arguing with a Sussex Countian that pretzel salad is in fact a dessert, and you will have a cat fight on your hands.

You may have figured out I’m an out-a-stater infiltrating the ranks and married to one of the few native Delawareans left. I get knocked around enough for being a PA’er so it is time for a little ribbing back.

I used to make iced tea for our family with a cup of sugar per gallon (which BTW is the recommended sugar ratio for sweet tea recipes), and when my eldest step-daughter tasted it, she literally spit it out and exclaimed there was barely any sugar in it. Then she stirred in even more sugar before drinking it.

Once again I repeat, it had an entire cup of sugar per gallon. That’s a lot.

So reducing down to two thirds a cup of the sweet stuff per gallon is a big deal for my husband!

We are slowly changing our diet for the better and believe in moderation in everything we do.

And, we don’t put any foods off limit. We still eat bacon occasionally but we eat more fish and have cut out or reduced most white food stuff (primarily white sugar, potatoes and bread).

Now we are eating brown: wheat bread and brown rice. We also try to eat fresh and shop from the produce aisle.

What we have learned

I know this sounds weird but his heart attack has been one of the best things that has happened to us as a couple. We are more in tune with each other. We are kinder to each other.

We both better appreciate the value and fragility of life.

And, my husband continues to surprise me. Since his recovery, he has tried Indian and Thai food…something he would have never done before.

We plan on buying bikes and finding fun ways to fit more exercise into our lives. We are embracing this new lifestyle change, and it doesn’t feel like a punishment…more like a reward.

Support the American Heart Association: Donate Now!

Chris is the youngest person in his rehab group by about 20 years, and he has started encouraging the other rehab-ers to change their diet without sacrificing their taste buds.

This is also one of the core missions of the American Heart Association.

The AMA educates people on how to take their life back after surviving heart disease. They share a lot of information on their website at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/ and their You Tube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/americanheartassoc.

They even have a cooking channel called “Simple Cooking with heart”. You can subscribe to it at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVHKmryC1CUNsHDduY1f1Fw.

If you lost anyone to heart disease or know someone struggling with it now, the AMA is a great resource and a great non-profit to support.

I am proud of my husband wanting to walk with his rehab buddies to support the fight because heart disease is preventable for the most part.

You can help too! Please consider donating to his AMA page at http://bit.ly/1nYFmj6.  There is also still time for you to sign up to walk yourself at www.heart.org/southerndewalk.

There are two walks scheduled for this month: Oct 18 at the Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown and Oct 25 at DTCC in Dover. Registration starts at 8 a.m. and the walk begins at 9 a.m. both days.

From our heart to yours, may God bless you and thank you for taking the time to read our story! Feel free to share it with others.

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