February is American Heart Month. This was designated by President Lyndon Johnson and is a time to increase awareness of heart disease and help people make healthier choices. Heart disease, including strokes, is the leading cause of death in men and women in the United States, ending the lives of an estimated 630,000 Americans each year.
The American Heart Association advocates the following steps to help diminish your chances of heart disease:
- Watch your weight
- Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke
- Control your cholesterol and blood pressure
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation
- Get active and eat healthy
- Talk to your doctor about taking aspirin every day if you are a man over the age of 45 or a woman over 55
- Manage stress
Of these item, regular practice in martial arts can help in a multifaceted way. The exercise helps manage weight, which is a factor in lowering blood pressure. Eating healthier is a byproduct of practice when you become more aware of your body and what is good for it, and the mental focus of martial arts can help in stress reduction.
A member of the martial arts dojo (training school) I train in recently suffered a heart attack. Barb Tysell, of Michigan, was kind enough to answer some questions on her experiences.
Hello Barb, thank you for agreeing to the interview. My understanding is that women have very different symptoms for a heart attack, ranging from simple discomfort in the chest to mild pain, to shortness of breath. What symptoms did you feel during your event?
It’s my pleasure, Don.
Looking back in retrospect, I had symptoms that were present about 8 months or more prior to my cardiac arrest. One evening after a particularly rigorous workout I felt faint, and rather than sit down and wait to collect myself and cool down after class, I went directly out into the very cold evening, got in the car, and passed out while driving home. Fortunately, it was momentary. This was accompanied by pain in my back. And some discomfort in the area of my left collar bone. I would describe the sensation as tingling.
Then over the ensuing months, this same sensation would come and go. I found myself less able to keep up in class – my cardio conditioning was obvously suspect, but I wasn’t training any less. It was puzzling. Additionally, I was very agitated, easily upset, more temperamental, took things very personally, which really sort of became apparent to me and my family at Christmas time. That holiday was quite stressful.
My cardiac arrest began on December 27th, at about 7:30 or so in the evening, after a jumping breakfalling drill, when I began to experience pain in the middle of my sternum. I ran and got the baby aspirin I carry for my mom and took one and continued to practice.
The pain would come and go, but over about a half hour or so, the pain became excruciating. It radiated through my chest to the middle of my back. The only way I can describe it is to say that it felt like a hole saw was boring though my back and chest. There was no pain or discomfort in my jaw or left arm, and the pain was not a “squeezing pain”. I was not short of breath or faint feeling. Frankly, I knew something was happening with my heart, but I did what many of us do….I thought that if I just stretched it would go away. And it did wane, but then would come roaring back.
It would have been impossible to tell whether I was diaphoretic or clammy, or flushed, because I sweat like a horse under normal conditions and I was grappling and sparring that evening. So when I finally told one of our Sensei that I was feeling as if I was having a heart attack, he could not see any outward signs.
As I said, I did not feel faint – just panic struck at that point (and somewhat embarrased that I was bailing out of class in front of an esteemed visitor. I was taken to a changing room this and another visitor to the dojo and in the midst of removing my drenched gi, I lost consciousness. I had no physical warning that this would occur. I was alert and oriented, following directions…just worried and frightened. Just extreme focused pain mid chest to midback.
I know that we were lucky enough to have a trained medical doctor practicing with us, and our training facility had an AED. Was your event serious enough to be fatal if these emergency factors were not on hand?
I was clinically dead. It was a fatal cardiac arrest, in which my heart went into ventricular tachicardia. That’s a condition in which the heart acts like a bowl of wiggling jello. No blood was moving to or from my heart and no oxygen was getting to my brain or tissues. I was told later that I was exhibiting signs that come with immenent irreversable fatal damage. My eyes were wide open and I was doing something refered to as fish-mouthing. It is an autonomic reaction that happens when heart, lungs, and brain are not linking properly. I was not breathing, I was turning blue and I looked like a fish gasping for air. This continued while CPR was being performed on me, and stopped when I was cardioverted with the AED portable machine the facility had just installed. This and the experienced friends who knew how to use it and do CPR were the only things that could have and did save my life at that point. CPR alone would have been completely unsuccessful.
It’s important to note that the above bullet points can help reduce the chance of a heart attack, but, of course, nothing is guaranteed. Being a life-long martial artist, do you feel your fitness level was a factor in your ability to survive the event?
Absolutely! I not only had this cardiac arrest, but I had a 100% blockage of my left descending coronary artery – the “widow maker”. People seldom survive that blockage. I had a stent placed, was put on medications that made me severely nauseated for two weeks. I was put on blood thinners that caused me to bruise horribly. However, my cardiac surgeon told me that I did not have to do cardiac rehab because of my conditioning and because I would be “bored to tears”. There was never a moment – that I even slightly entertained the thought that I would not resume training. Physical fitness level was certainly a component of my survival, but in truth, I completely owe my surival of this cardiac arrest to the fact that I had trained people around me and the proper equipment close at hand to shock my heart back into a normal rhythm. My recovery was made more successful and was expedited due to my training, but mostly it was the training of my mind and will that allowed me to push through this. That kind of training is only found on the mats. I can literally and figuratively say that I owe both my first and second lives to proper martial training.
I will say that one unusual take away message from this – tought to me by one of the EMT’s in the ambulance as I was beginning to slip into V-Tach again was to COUGH! Hard! Then COUGH AGAIN!!! It is a little known fact that if the patient is conscious, if the command is given to cough deeply as hard as they can, the effect on the heart is similar to being shocked. It kept me from haveing to be shocked again.
In the recovery time after the event, was your martial arts training a factor in a faster and more effective recovery? Did any of your medical team remark on your recovery?
Unquestionably so. As I mentioned, I did not have to go through cardiac rehab becuase my conditiononing was better than the avearge heart attack victim. My doctor and the pysician from whom I received a second opinion both said that I should ease my way back into training, watch and listen to my body relling me I was over doing it, feeling chest pain or faint, but both felt strongly that I should be back up to a normal training schedule after about 3 months – building up – not jumping back in full bore. I was given a full release to do so from my cardiologist after a stress test about a month after my cardiac arrest – that is – continue to train, increase my time in training, and add treadmill exercize to raise and lower my heart rate. I continue this still.
And yes, the medical team members in particular my cardiologist remarked more than once that “you should not be here – because the blockage I had is typically fatal, and and use of my age and physical training, ie – how could someone like me have suffered such a major event? I did better on my first stress test last year and on my follow up stress test this past week than expected – was able to bring my heart rate up to 80% of full capacity last year and 90% of full capacity this year. I was able to maintain my heart rate at that high level for a protracted period and my heart rate came down nice and quickly. Morever the doctor was quite surprised by the results of the scan done after the stress test. He could barely find any residual damage. Now. to be honest, I’d love to attribute that to my training, but I believe i owe that to the fast and competent and calm martial practitioners around me that responded to a crisis in a resolved and organized manner.
Going back to before your event, is there anything you wish you had paid attention to beforehand? Was there an indicator that you were at risk for this? Something you wish you’d have addressed earlier?
I had been diagnosed with hypertension about 3 years before and was put on meds.As I mentioned above, I had warning signs some time prior to the event. I just felt I could overcome it. I did have an EKG soon after the event that caused me to faint in the car, but it was normal. I have a family history of cardiac events.My father died of a heart attck 11 years ago at the age of 78. I have a maternal uncle who died of a sudden cardiac arrest at the age of 50. My maternal grandfather had a pacemake placed, and my mom had two heart attacks- one likely after my father died and one after some stressful events. She never went to the doctor specifically for any chest pain – never really had any. She just felt a heaviness in her chest and deep fatigue. No other classic signs. But then, she was about 83 at the time. She had a cath done after her PCP discovered irregularities on her EKG and they found no new damage, and resolving old damage. There were no “movie style dramatic signs or symptoms”
What mental, or attitude changes has the event brought about? How has your martial arts practice changed as a result of the event?
If there were any advice I’d give – especially to athletes in general and martial artists in particular, I would say that you should NEVER blow off what seems out of the ordinary. So what if you go to the ER and they tell you you;re having a panic attack – at least you know. It could be far more serious. I would say that if you have a family history, do not allow yourself to fall into denial. Get regular check ups. Cut out diet sodas, 44-60% increased incidence in cardaic events among diet soda drinkers, cut back on salt an have your cholesteral and lipids checked yearly. You may live the cleanest life on the planet and still have a genetic predisposition to hyperlipidemia or hypercholesterolemia.
Is there anything you’d like to add for your fellow women and martial arts practitioners?
When you’re back on the mats, with your lovely stent placed, and on blood thinners, don’t spar! As much as you may want to, you will bruise – and not just on the surface. Train in technique or in some other facet of your practice that you neglect because it bores you. Set aside power for efficiency. That is better training anyway. Make sure your dojo, gym and any establishment to frequent from stores to restaurants has an AED nearby and has the staff trained to use it. It saved my life. A woman who was admitted at the same time as did was in a department store, sufferd the same type of cardiac arrest, no one had an AED handy and no one really knew how to do CPR – in fact people just stood there and watched her. She died in the room next to me in the CCU. Take CPR classes. Learn to be first responder. You never know who you might save.
For more information on heart disease, please contact the American Heart Association.