My granddaddy’s name was William Howard Jones, and he was an avid fisherman and hunter. He had several self-imposed nicknames, his favorite being “Wataski.” He frequently and playfully referred to himself as this distinguished nickname since the time he bagged a huge 10-point buck and then soon after caught a 10-lb. bass. He was a superhero to me. We hunted, trapped and fished every critter in the state from the time I could tag along.
Thanksgiving morning, 1981, Wataski died on his deer stand from a heart attack. I was devastated. Heart disease was such a mystery to me at the time, but I hated it with a passion for taking my granddaddy. It’s no longer the mystery it once was, but be assured that my hate for heart disease has only grown. Later in my life, I became a registered nurse, primarily working in the emergency room. Every fall, we would treat patients who suffered heart attacks while in the woods hunting. My mind would flash back to the pain I felt when I lost my grandpa, and somehow I felt that Ol’ Wataski was saying to me, “Well, do something about it, boy!”
I eventually become a Cardiac Cath Lab Nurse and continued to see patients every fall who suffered heart attacks while hunting. I’ve been fortunate in my career and now have oversight for a Cardiovascular Department, and my passion is trying to do for others what I couldn’t do for Wataski—to teach about heart disease and the signs and symptoms many people every day ignore or attribute to something else.
Heart attack victims have a disease process going on in their arteries that is very insidious and slow to develop, typically about 10 years. Heart attacks are more likely to happen during strenuous physical activity, and this is exactly what happens when hunters take to the woods. Many of us are not all that physically active most of the year, and when hunting season comes around, suddenly we are planting food plots, setting up stands, cutting shooting lanes and sometimes dragging a deer out of the woods if we are lucky. This sudden burst of activity can precipitate a heart attack that would happen anyway at some point, but for it to happen deep in the woods, especially if you are alone, can greatly reduce your chance of a good outcome. Sadly, many people, hunters included, experience warning signs of heart disease and ignore them.
The goal is to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of heart events and to impress upon everyone the sometimes very vague nature of them. It all comes down to simple maintenance. If we would assign the same importance to our own health as we do our pets health, maintenance of our home, cars, trucks and 4-wheelers, then we would all have many more years to enjoy our families and the great outdoors. I hope my message is clear. Someone reading this will recognize what I’m talking about, so please take action.
First, let’s start a few stats from the American Heart Association (AHA):
• Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer in the U.S.
• Every 40 seconds someone in the U.S. will have a heart attack.
• About 790,000 people in the U.S. have attacks annually. Of that number, about 114,000 will not survive.
One reason for such a high rate of death with heart attack is simply a failure of the victim to recognize what is happening. Frequently, they suspect a heart attack but go into a state of denial. I’ve heard nearly all the excuses for not calling 911.
• I’m too young to have a heart attack. Wrong. People in their 30s are at a prime age to have a heart attack, even younger for some types of heart attacks. Heart disease isn’t just for the elderly.
• I’m in too good of shape! I work out! Good for you. Exercise definitely reduces your chances of a heart attack but does not eliminate it. You can also eat all the right things along with your exercise and still have a heart attack.
• I’m not having chest pain! This is one frequently excuse, but it is WRONG. Chest pain is a symptom, but not the only symptom. The following are all symptoms of a heart attack:
• Middle chest pain/pressure
• Pain between the shoulder blades
• Left or right side jaw pain
• Left or right arm pain
• Flank pain
• Abdominal pain
• Sudden onset nausea
• Sudden sweating for no reason
• Indigestion-type feeling
This is certainly not an all-inclusive list of heart attack symptoms. However, the point here is the non-specific nature of heart attack symptoms. The AHA has a lot of info available on their website.
Based on what I just presented, many might think they are having heart attacks every afternoon. How do you know the difference between every day aches and pains and a heart attack? There is no magical formula for determining that difference. The best advice I can give is that you know your body. If the symptoms are odd, if you find it strange you’re feeling the way you are, if it’s new for you… then that’s the key.
One common theme with heart attack survivors is that they “knew it was serious,” or “I have never felt that way before.” They almost invariably knew deep down that something serious was going on, yet they were in denial. I’m asking you today to not do that. Take action at the first symptom. Acting quickly is critical because we know that we have a 90-minute window to restore circulation to your heart before permanent damage occurs, and sudden cardiac death can occur at any point in this cycle. Call 911. Do not drive yourself or have someone drive you to the ER!
So we covered signs and symptoms. In order to prevent things from going that far, we recommend establishing a relationship with a physician to get baseline vital signs, an ECG and lab work. Heart disease can often be detected by subtle changes over time in your ECG. It is possible to take action based on this and repair an artery with a stent before a heart attack occurs. Human nature is funny. We find time to maintain our cars, our houses, our guns, we take our pets to the veterinarian, but we neglect signs that we ourselves could be in danger of a heart attack.
It’s been said that knowledge is power. Wataski didn’t have the power of this knowledge. These things can save your life or the life of a loved one. Heart disease is treatable, but we in the medical field must have something to work with. Delaying treatment can cause damage to your heart that cannot be repaired, resulting in a very poor prognosis and quality of life. But early recognition and action can give you many more quality years with your family and many more opportunities to bag that big buck. Happy hunting!
Editor’s Note: Ray Jones is Associate Director of Cardiovascular Services at Houston Heart Institute at Houston Healthcare in Warner Robins.