'I was a massive heart attack waiting to happen'

Bruce Hamilton's personal story about the day he nearly died

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – I had a brush with death and I hope my own frightening experience opens your eyes to certain realities and saves lives.  Heart disease is the leading killer of men and women in the United States and it almost took my life.

Let me take you back.  I had symptoms, that like a lot of guys, I ignored.  I had chest pains and pains radiating down the left side of my arm.  I led a sedentary lifestyle, I didn't exercise enough and I didn't eat right. Basically, I was a heart attack waiting to happen.

My cardiologist is Dr. Majdi Ashchi with First Coast Heart & Vascular Center has a warning for other men.

"Don't ignore it," he said. "Don't ignore your chest pains, especially when you have multiple coronary artery disease risk factors. Risk factors determine your risk probability, which is very, very important. So it's important, I'd rather you come to the emergency room, come to the office, get a stress test, get an EKG and come home empty handed, rather than come in a box."

Now, I have four boys, so going out in a box is the last thing I want. So I went with my doctor's suggestion to take a look -- just as a precaution. 

I took a nuclear stress test and the results came back with nothing conclusive, so Dr. Ashchi wanted to do a heart cath just to be sure.  I decided it's time to go forward with a cardiac catheterization to give me more information

"My concern was your history had elements that had concerns for coronary disease," Dr. Ashchi told me.  "And knowing your background and the history you gave me, I got even more suspicious."

On July 5, I was on a table in the Heart Cath Lab in Memorial Hospital. It was all supposed to be routine, but from the proverbial get-go, I got that 'Hmmm' that nobody wants to hear from the doctor. 

They were supposed to go in through my wrist; less invasive, quicker, in and out of the hospital. But there was a complication. The doctor couldn't find my radial pulse.

All of a sudden things changed and they decided for the test to be more conclusive they would have to do the heart cath the traditional way and go through the groin. 

Wouldn't you know it!  They found a 75 to 80 percent blockage right near the artery dubbed the "widowmaker."  I was a massive heart attack waiting to happen.  No problem.  They'll put in a medicated stent.

Dr. Ashchi explained, "We put a wire across, because the wire acts as a pulley. Over the wire, we delivered a stent. A stent is a mesh of metal - nickel and titanium mixed together.  I''s like a mesh Chinese Fingerlock. You put it in and inflate it and basically it hugs the wall of the artery. So you can push it away, and have a bigger lumen for the blood to flow."

My blockage was caused by plaque in the arteries.  Plaque buildup is the fatty deposits and other cells that can build up in the walls of your arteries over time.  It's a progressive disease called atherosclerosis, which often starts in early adulthood.

One of the major causes of plaque buildup is a high level of bad cholesterol. As plaque continues to build over time, it can actually narrow arteries. That's what happened to me.

My stent procedure goes routinely.  I alternate between sleep and being awake and watching the monitors.  Then, I was off to recovery and thinking I'll be out of the hospital in a matter of hours.

I was being monitored in recovery for about 10 or 15 minutes when all of a sudden, my blood pressure dropped dramatically.  My doctor leaned over to me and said, "Bruce, you're stressing me out."

I crashed.  I was in cardiac arrest. Medical crews scrambled.  The Rapid Response team arrived and for the first time, I was confronted with the reality that I could die.  I was very cold.  My body was shivering as I listened to orchestrated voices working around me.  It was organized chaos.  It was surreal but I remained surprisingly calm.  I thought about life, my priorities and what's most important to me.

"Immediately we took you to the cat scan to diagnose our suspicion, and that cat scan confirmed that there is a bleed," explained Dr. Ashchi.  "Then we brought you to fix the problem. We diagnosed it, we confirmed it with a cat scan, then we brought you to the cath lab again. And the Response Team was there all the time with us and they stay with the patient. The doctors, the nurses and the tech."

"That's when we brought you back in and preformed an angiogram. Again an angiogram was to find out where the bleed is. What happened in retrospect, hindsight is 20/20. What happened is sometimes that atery can open up. Due to coughing, sneezing or sitting up too early. That artery can open up and bleed volumes into the belly or the retroparenial space, known as an RP bleed and it spontaneously stopped," said Dr. Ashchi.

It's strange because I become very analytical after that; I guess it's the journalist in me.  I also also become very spiritual and I wrote a poem called 'Do I Stay or Do I Go?'  (Watch Bruce recite his poem.)

There are people who believe I had a choice. I believe I had a choice, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to share that poem with you.

My heart skips a beat, and the world around me fades.
 Life as I know it becomes blurred.
The people who surround me talk furiously, but their speech sounds slurred.
 Do I stay or do I go?
My heart stops. My blood pressure drops.
Do I stay or do I go?
Is it my choice?  I don't know.
A flurry of activity is all around me in attempts to save me, abound.
There are doctors, nurses, and medical techs all around.
My reality is now a white shroud, much like a cumulus cloud.
Do I stay or do I go?
I still don't know.
I hear the question echo in the mind aloud.
My mind it swirls in that cumulus cloud, then amidst the chaos, a moment of clarity.
Do I stay or do I go?
I stay because, this, I know: To leave this life now with so much left to do would be untenable.
 I have so many things that make life worth living, and amenable:
my boys, my family, my friends. Do I stay or do I go?
I refuse to let go, and this,
I let God know.

To assess your risk of heart attack, the American Heart Association offers an online Heart Attack Risk Calculator.  Calculate your risk now.

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