A healthy, athletic man who watches his weight, eats right and exercises regularly might be the last person anyone would expect to suffer a massive heart attack.
Not so. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year about 720,000 Americans have a heart attack. Included in that number are 515,000 first-time heart attack victims, many of whom appeared to be healthy, watching their weight and exercising.
Leonard Albert of Cleveland is included in that rare group. Albert, who was 66 years old at the time, admits, “It was a complete surprise. Since 1972 I’ve been very conscious of what I eat and the calorie intake that I have every day. I count my calories. My wife and I did what we thought was a fair job of watching our sodium. We split meals. My weight was normal and I had energy — no problems.”
But on Oct. 4, 2013, there was a huge problem. Albert would soon discover a ticking time bomb in his genes that was about to change his life.
“We were getting ready to take a motor trip,” he explained. “Normally I fly. But this time we were taking a motor trip 1,350 miles one way. We were loading our vehicle. But that morning it was amazing to us — we couldn’t get it together. We’ve been traveling for 40 years but I could not think of what shirt would go with a pair of trousers. We were both in a fog. My wife dropped clothes trying to get them in the suitcase. The short of it is, we were late. We were about three hours off from when we hoped to leave.”
Since his wife, Pat, was still packing and it was nearing lunchtime, Albert said he decided to go outside and trim a few shrubs.
“I came back in. Still we weren’t ready,” he said. “So I decided to have some yogurt. I sat down and that’s when it happened. I got this horrible feeling in my chest. I didn’t even think of a heart attack because I never had any health issues. The only health issue I had was a gall bladder removed 10 years prior.”
Describing the pain, Albert said,” You know how sometimes you try to burp but you can’t? The gas keeps moving — that pressure in your chest? I would inhale and try to get the gas to escape but it wouldn’t go. Then it got worse and worse.”
In a 2005 survey, most respondents — 92 percent — recognized chest pain as a symptom of a heart attack. Only 27 percent were aware of all major symptoms such as upper body pain or discomfort in the chest, arms, back, neck, jaw or upper stomach, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness or cold sweats. Failure to recognize these warning signs and to call 9-1-1 immediately is a major cause of death due to heart problems.
Regarding what he thought was indigestion, Albert admits, “I didn’t want to tell Pat, but I knew something was bad wrong. Finally, I said, ‘Pat, there’s something going on here. There’s something really bad.’ Then it escalated to serious pain! Perhaps the worse pain I’ve ever known — horrible pain in my chest!”
Pat immediately called 9-1-1 and an ambulance quickly arrived, finding Albert on his couch.
“My wife was on the line with our daughter, Renee. The ambulance arrived along with a fire truck and the EMTs were great. They were super professional. They said, ‘Mr. Albert, we’re not sure this is a heart attack but we’re going to treat it like one.’ Even then I didn’t think it was a heart attack. They worked with me a little more and the pain intensified. Then they gave me nitroglycerin and said ‘We’re going to take you to the hospital.’
“They took me to SkyRidge (Medical Center) and that’s when things got serious. They gave me morphine. The doctor said, ‘Mr. Albert, you’re having a major heart attack. We can’t treat you here.’ That’s when I got nervous. They said, ‘We’re going to have to take you by ambulance.’”
Although Albert was uncertain as to why a helicopter was not utilized on that Friday afternoon when traffic was so heavy en route to Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, he commended the ambulance driver for getting him there as fast as he could and in sufficient time.
“The doctor said 20 minutes would have made a major difference and still I suffered quite a bit of damage to my heart. I lost a lot of my heart health that day,” Albert said. “Even with the morphine and the nitroglycerin under the tongue, nothing phased the pain. It was intense pain! I got another shot of morphine in the ambulance. It was at this point that I felt like I was going to die. I wasn’t afraid. It just didn’t seem like I could live anymore.”
The last thing Albert says he remembered was being wheeled out of the ambulance and seeing Memorial Hospital nurses and doctors rushing to his aid as everything faded out.
“When I woke up, I was in the cardiac intensive care unit at Memorial,” he said. “They told me I had a major heart attack — a myocardial infarction. The layman’s term is the ‘widow maker.’ The doctors told me up to 70 percent of the men who have this heart attack don’t get to the hospital alive.”
Cardiologists explained that there was a 100 percent blockage of blood flow to his heart from the front artery, resulting in his heart not receiving the oxygen and nutrients it needed. There were also two other blocked arteries that were not as serious. The only immediate treatment possible was the insertion of a cardiac stent. A blockage in a blood vessel called the left anterior descending artery is called a “widow maker” because its victims often die and their spouse becomes a widow.
Not this time, however. Albert said he believes the power of prayer was at work from countless families and friends, for which he was especially grateful. Puzzled by the inexplicable nature of his surprise heart attack, Albert said, “I asked the doctor ‘What’s up? I ran for 25 consecutive years at the Cleveland High School track. I walked 4.2 miles an hour and ran 5.5 miles an hour. If you’re good at math and you do that for an hour, in one hour you’re going to go five miles. I know this because I’ve done it my whole life — 25 years! My weight is in line. What is the deal?”
His cardiologist explained it was genetics, something beyond Albert’s control. Genetics combined with stress, too much protein and too much sodium created a coronary crisis that nearly killed him. It all made sense now. Albert said his mother died at Memorial Hospital 20 years to the year before his own crisis. Her death was heart related. His sister dropped dead from a heart attack. His brother also suffers from heart disease and wears a defibrillator. Realizing his biggest problem was genetics, not poor eating habits, obesity, lack of exercise or otherwise not taking care of himself, Albert focused on what he could do to improve his chances of survival.
“My doctor mentioned I was getting too much sodium and wanted me to eat around 1,500 milligrams a day. I was eating 5,000 milligrams a day. But I never used salt,” Albert said. “They told me anything out of a box or a bag to eat is bad for you. Anything white — sugar, salt, flour, lard — anything that has those elements are bad for you. Getting too much protein like eating red meats and pork would also be bad. So I had to really monitor that.”
Albert said he uses a free online tool called My Fitness Pal at www.myfitnesspal.com. that will track what he eats, adding, “It’s probably one of the ways I recovered three months earlier than they told me I would.”
His lifestyle change also included purchasing a new high-quality blender that allows him to get vital nutrients from more fruits and vegetables, which as he says, “changed my life.”
On a scale of 1 to 10, Albert gives himself a 9 as far as being fully recovered, explaining that his cardiologist, Dr. James Marcum, told him that his heart health had gone from 35, which is not good, to about 50.
“He said there is a 10 percent area in my heart that has not healed yet,” Albert recalled. “He said time might heal that. The reason I feel I’m at a 9 is because of the medication. I’m on a beta blocker to slow my heart down so it doesn’t pump too much blood. I’m trying to do what he says. For me, this was all totally unexpected. I felt great. I’d been working out four or five days a week and loved doing it.”
Reflecting on how far he has come after his surprising heart attack and what he would advise others to do, Albert said, “I don’t know of any other way than to say you’ve got to radically change your diet. If you want to get well you’ve got to exercise. You’ve got to do it more than twice a week. You’ve got to do it at least three to four times a week.”
Albert’s lifestyle includes riding his stationary bike for the equivalence of 10 miles, and walking in his basement for a mile and a half several times a week. When asked what he would recommend for anyone who has a family history of heart disease, Albert responded, “When I look back on it, that was my biggest error. I should have said to myself, ‘Mom died with this. My sister died with this. My brother has heart disease. I’d better get a checkup!
“This could have been prevented. I could have been helped without any heart damage. That is my only regret. I would say if your family has a history of heart disease you really need to go in and have an angiogram (the gold standard for finding blockages in the arteries). Most people don’t want to take the time, but it’s really, really worth it. My doctors feel with proper diet and exercise I can now overcome the other two blockages.”
Albert, who serves as the coordinator of personal evangelism with the Church of God USA mission, had been on a minimal six-month travel restriction after traveling regularly for four decades.
“My work is field work,” he said. “I work with our local churches in the field. Although I am not a clergyman, I work in helping our pastors. This is a work of my life which I dearly love.”
Now that the restrictions are off, Albert said he is going to try and travel twice a month, making between 20 to 25 trips in a year. He said he is especially grateful for a system of support that has accelerated his physical progress.
“One of the reasons I feel my health got back in 90 days was the family support system,” he said. “My wife was totally into this. She helped prepare the meals. We went online and found recipes. She changed her eating habits too! I think the support system that you have from your family is very important. Also, I found out I had a lot of people who cared about me that I never knew — people praying for me! The reflective mood that I have is that people should be more cautious — because even when you think you’re OK, you’re not. What we eat is our life.”
Albert, who was the recipient of Lee University’s F.J. Lee Award, the highest recognition for a member of a graduating class, went on to develop a local church-based men’s ministry with over 2,400 chapters worldwide, called LifeBuilders. He also served as the administrative secretary and international director of Lay Ministries for the Church of God.
With a warm social grace, Albert said he feels humbled and blessed to be alive, willing and able to share his experience in the hopes that it may help others to take a second look at their family history and possibly avoid what he suffered.
The CDC says “Genetic factors likely play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease, and other vascular conditions. The risk for heart disease can increase even more when heredity is combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking cigarettes and eating a poor diet.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States (approximately 600,000 deaths each year) and is a major cause of disability. You can help prevent heart disease by making healthy choices and managing any medical conditions you may have.
For further information on heart disease, visit http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/faqs.htm#4 or contact the American Heart Association at www.heart.org.