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Don't Ignore the Symptoms

Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Ploeger (front right) hooks Master Sgt. Mike Johnson (back middle) up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine for simulated testing on his heart in the exam room of the 132nd Fighter Wing (132FW) Medical Facility, Des Moines, Iowa on February 7, 2014.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger/Released)

Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Ploeger (front right) hooks Master Sgt. Mike Johnson (back middle) up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine for simulated testing on his heart in the exam room of the 132nd Fighter Wing (132FW) Medical Facility, Des Moines, Iowa on February 7, 2014. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger/Released)

Master Sgt. Mike Johnson is hooked up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine for simulated testing on his heart in the exam room of the 132nd Fighter Wing (132FW) Medical Facility, Des Moines, Iowa on February 7, 2014.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger/Released)

Master Sgt. Mike Johnson is hooked up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine for simulated testing on his heart in the exam room of the 132nd Fighter Wing (132FW) Medical Facility, Des Moines, Iowa on February 7, 2014. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger/Released)

Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Ploeger (left) hooks Master Sgt. Mike Johnson (right) up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine for simulated testing on his heart in the exam room of the 132nd Fighter Wing (132FW) Medical Facility, Des Moines, Iowa on February 7, 2014.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger/Released)

Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Ploeger (left) hooks Master Sgt. Mike Johnson (right) up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine for simulated testing on his heart in the exam room of the 132nd Fighter Wing (132FW) Medical Facility, Des Moines, Iowa on February 7, 2014. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Linda K. Burger/Released)

Des Moines, Iowa --

On December 22, 2013 I went in to my civilian job as a Firefighter.  At home the night before I was not feeling well, and was debating if I should stay home sick.  I had flu like symptoms and thought I might be coming down with a cold, but I thought I felt good enough to go to work

Once at work I started morning checks of the trucks and medical bags.  It had snowed the night before and cars were getting stuck in the street in front of the Fire Station so I told my supervisor I was going out to help push cars through the intersection.  I grabbed a radio and put on my high visibility vest, "If your feet are on the street the vest is on your chest."   After going out and pushing a couple cars I felt a tightness in the left center of my chest, and felt a little light headed.  I went in the station to sit down, but after a few minutes there was still pressure in my chest, not pain, but it didn't feel normal.  After the morning meeting, I had another Firefighter take my blood pressure.  As he was checking it his eyes got really big and he asked me if I was OK.  He checked it again turned the dial toward me so I could see and said, "You need to go to doctor right away."

At that point I should have taken at least one aspirin, that I always carry with me for someone else, but never dreamed I would ever need it.  I drove myself to the urgent care clinic, which wasn't open due to the snow, so I drove myself to the Emergency Room.  In hindsight, it would have been better to at least have someone drive me if not have called 911.

At the hospital they checked my troponin and did an EKG.  The troponin test measures the levels of certain proteins called troponin T and troponin I in the blood. These proteins are released when the heart muscle has been damaged.  The more damage there is to the heart, the greater the amount of troponin T and I there will be in the blood.  The EKG (Electrocardiograph or ECG) is a test that checks for problems of the electrical activity of the heart over a period of time, as detected by electrodes attached to the chest on surface of the skin and recorded. There was no troponin in my blood and the EKG results were negative.

 The doctor asked me to rate my chest pain on a scale from 1 to 10, one being a little pain and ten being the most painful thing I had ever experienced.  I said it wasn't really pain, just discomfort that spread to my left shoulder.  I rated it a 5 or 6 on the pain scale.  My blood pressure was still unusually high so I was told that I was going to stay overnight in the hospital and have a stress test in the morning as a precaution. 

A stress test provides information about how your heart works during physical stress. Some heart problems are easier to diagnose when your heart is working hard and beating fast.  This made sense to me since I was exerting myself pushing a car when my chest pressure started. During stress testing, you exercise (walk or run on a treadmill) to make your heart work hard and beat fast. Tests are done on your heart while you exercise. The next day my family doctor visited with me before my stress test.  He didn't think the test would find anything and I would be out of the hospital that afternoon.  Once I completed my stress test and got back to my room everything changed, I was scheduled for an angioplasty with a stent to fix a 99% blockage of my left anterior descending artery.  My reaction was, "This isn't possible.  I'm only in my 40's, I exercise at least 3 times a week, I just passed my Air Force Fitness Assessment in November, I'm not over weight, and there is no family history of early heart disease."  Like it or not despite everything I thought I was doing to prevent it, I had coronary artery disease.

According to the American Heart Association, February is American Heart Month.  Heart disease is a major problem; it's the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.  Every year, 715,000 Americans have a heart attack and about 600,000 die from heart disease in the each year--that's 1 out of every 4 deaths.  You can help reduce these numbers by knowing the symptoms and knowing what to do if you or someone you know is having a heart attack.

The five major symptoms of a heart attack are;

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.
  • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder.
  • Shortness of breath.

If you think that you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.  After calling 911 or other emergency services, chew and swallow one 325 mg aspirin or three 81mg aspirin as long as you're not allergic to aspirin or unable to take it for some other reason.

Find more information with the American Heart Association at http://www.heart.org

Remember, if you know the symptoms and know what to do, you could help save a life.