How do you reclaim your life after a traumatic heart event?
As a surgical oncologist, I thought I understood medical trauma. That idea changed – along with the rest of my life – in 2002, after I had angina symptoms three days into training for the New York Marathon. Tests showed that four arteries were 95% blocked, and I underwent quadruple bypass surgery – seeing the ceiling of my operating room for the first time. Then I found out how little I knew about recovery. Medical school doesn’t teach you how to be a patient.
I had prided myself on taking care of my health. I kept fit with marathon training, and had visited Canyon Ranch countless times – in fact, my wife, journalist Jamie Colby, and I got engaged and then honeymooned at Canyon Ranch in Lenox.
At Canyon Ranch, I had discovered I was highly stressed. I had poor genetics for heart health, and recognized that healthy lifestyle habits were the best way to combat my family health history. Along with stress management techniques, I learned how to take care of myself, how to eat, how to cook.
By my estimation, living better extended the time before my heart crisis by around 14 years – but nothing prepared me for life afterward. After my surgery, I thought, “If I’m still alive, why do I feel dead?”
I was depressed and in pain. I couldn’t sleep, lost 20 pounds, and didn’t want to leave the house. I was an emotional wreck. The first thing I learned was that you need an advocate. Jamie took control of my medication, stopped me from overusing painkillers and accompanied me to doctors’ appointments. We learned together, often the hard way. I discovered that friends and colleagues can be tactless, even hurtful. (I may have felt awful, but I didn’t need to hear that I looked it.)
Setting small goals proved vital. Going to a nearby restaurant and eating a meal I desperately didn’t want. Climbing a stairway. Making love again.
Jamie and I had to rebuild our lives, professionally, emotionally, sexually and spiritually. Together, we overcame one obstacle after another. Still, I needed to prove I could beat this crisis. I needed a huge physical challenge. I decided I was going to run a marathon again.
On November 7, 2004, I crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon.
Reclaiming my life
We returned to Canyon Ranch in summer 2004. It was like coming home. We did six-mile walks, I did aerobics classes, and yoga, which really centered me. I reviewed my diet with a nutritionist, and a Life Management session helped me deal with residual fears and depression.
As Jamie and I reviewed our monumental journey since my diagnosis, we saw how far we’d come. We’d found no books about how to deal with a health crisis – we had to figure everything out ourselves. We decided to share what we’d learned.
Our book, Back to Life After a Heart Crisis discusses how to face physical and emotional pain, and how to survive doctors’ appointments. We talk about how to conquer the night, regain intimacy, and what to expect when you return to work.
Most of all, recovery is about setting goals – reaching for the next milestone and never, ever, giving in. Don’t ask, “Why me?” Instead, ask, “What could be?”
Dr. Wallack invites anyone with questions to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org