On a warm summer night in 2008, I nearly lost my husband of 20 years, and my children then seven and six nearly lost their father.
On the night of July 26, my husband, Murali Dharan (46) complained of chest pain. He had a very full day that day. He had worked out, lifted weights, played a round of golf and had a nice evening. The one thing that wasn’t on my mind was the possibility that right then and there he was having a heart attack in front of my eyes. He didn’t have any of the symptoms that I thought would accompany a heart attack, other than the really obvious big one, chest pain! I did not call 911 or react with the sort of urgency that was needed. It was an inconvenient hour with the kids already asleep. Plus, I had looked up the symptoms on Google and learned that the pain could be due to inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the sternum. The Mayo Clinic site, which I trust, had said that pain caused by corticochondritis could mimic that of a heart attack. I allowed my judgment to be clouded and just gave him a painkiller and let him fall asleep.
I still shudder when I think back to that night and just how close I came to the edge of the unthinkable.
Murali’s chest pain lasted for a day, but disappeared thereafter. By some stroke of luck, he saw his physician who did not order an EKG, for Murali’s risk of heart disease, let alone a heart attack, was not apparent to him. Murali got his EKG and stress tests anyway. The results were abnormal, but it took Cardiology several days to communicate their observation to us. When we finally did meet, the cardiologist explained that Murali had had an event. We did not even realize that an “event” in cardiologist-speak meant a “heart attack.” Murali’s right coronary artery was nearly a 100 percent blocked and he needed a stent immediately.
We were devastated. How could a heart attack happen so suddenly with no prior symptoms? How could the occlusion in the artery be so severe? How come his physician did not foresee any of this?
This rising storm of questions led my husband to research the topic in depth. We were in our forties, and despite being well-educated and savvy healthcare consumers, we had no inkling of our genetic predisposition to heart disease. And, when the cardiologist recommended that Murali change his lifestyle, we were bewildered. What aspect of our lifestyle was unhealthy enough to lead to a heart attack? We soon realized, that even though we were vegetarians, we were not necessarily healthy vegetarians. We were eating more grains than greens and not enough fresh vegetables and fruits and were not regular with exercise either. We live literally two miles from the South Asian Heart Center, and yet in our ignorance, we might have well lived a million miles away. I wish that we had aggressively tested for heart disease and made the lifestyle changes that can reverse heart disease, earlier.
Here are some take away lessons from our wake up call.
* Ignorance is not bliss. For Indians and South Asians, being in the 30s or 40s is not sufficient protection against cardiac disease. We have to know our risks.
* If you or someone you know develops chest pain, call 911. Don’t second guess the symptoms like I did.
* You can make lifestyle changes that can prevent or reverse heart disease. Even vegetarians need to re-access their diet. Vegetarians have low intakes of total fat, saturated fatty acids and cholesterol. But, their intake of polyunsaturates is equal or slightly higher than that of nonvegetarians.
* Many physicians, like ours, apply commonly used standards that underestimate risk in our population. So, educate your physicians about the genetic predisposition of Indians and South Asians to heart disease and have your risk factors assessed and addressed.
My family faced a crisis, out of the crisis came an opportunity to reform our lifestyle. Our story does have a happy outcome: thanks to my husband’s incredible motivation and will power, he is now fitter, and healthier than he has ever been in his life. The lifestyle changes we have made are here to stay. We watch what we eat and love our vegetable-rich salads and soups much like we used to relish our fried potatoes and crispy dosas. We also signed up with a health club close to home so we can exercise regularly. We do not want to be caught off-guard or passive ever again.
We will celebrate our 25th anniversary this year.
Priya Dharan is the voluntary Chair of Marketing at the South Asian Heart Center.