The first time I found out about having high blood pressure was in the late 90s.
On LIVE TV!
I was at the Convention Center on a Saturday, helping to promote NBC10’s “FitFest”-- a weekend full of free health screenings, and more. My assignment was to do the weather from there, while promoting the event.
In order to make things more interesting, I did my “tease” for weather while walking around, showing some of the great exhibits. I went to the blood pressure station and had them hook me up. “I’ll be back with the weather, and we’ll see how my blood pressure is, coming up.” Good TV.
When we came back from the commercial break, just before starting the weather, I turned to one of the nurses and asked how I did. “You need to see a doctor immediately.” Isn’t live TV wonderful? I can just imagine the shocked look on my face.
NEARLY 15 YEARS LATER...
I did go to the doctor, George Martin, at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pa., who treats a lot of people from the station. He put me on two blood pressure medications, and my numbers have been good ever since. NO PROBLEMS.
Why should there be any problems? I have never smoked, never been obese, ate at least decently, and exercised regularly, including swimming. I may not look like it (OK, I definitely don’t look like it), but I’m a pretty good athlete, who’s been playing racquetball for nearly 40 years, and even won a couple of tournaments. Nobody at the station could touch me. Racquetball requires lots of quick movements, and is a great conditioning exercise. In fact, the Penn State football players used r’ball as part of their off-season conditioning program at the time I went to school there. I also played on the station’s softball team for years, and was one of their best hitters and fastest runners, even approaching age 50.
THEN…OUT OF NOWHERE…
April 13, 2012
We leave for the beautiful Riviera Maya in Mexico, south of Cancun. It’s a destination wedding for a close friend of my girlfriend Phyllis.
Monday, April 16
I take a swim in the resort’s private pool, where I can do my laps. Swimming is a great exercise-terrific for aerobics, but no impact (unlike running). I generally swim an un-interrupted 20 minutes of breast stroke 2-3 times a week back home.
But after only a couple of laps, there was a “pressure” that I felt above the heart. It certainly couldn’t be described as pain, so I didn’t think it was anything serious. I did get out of the water, though. If I had continued for the full swim, it turns out I may not have survived the pool.
Tuesday, April 17
Phyllis and I take a walk on the beautiful beach. We can usually walk miles with no problem, and had in fact done that just a couple of days earlier. This time, though, I started feeling a bit out of breath only a few minutes after starting. “That’s strange”, I thought. “Am I that out of shape?” Unlike with the pool, I continued anyway, and actually felt better at the end of the walk. But that is when I decided to contact my doctor when I got back home, just to make sure everything was OK.
Wed, April 18-Sunday, April 22
There were no further incidents that were significant enough to become more concerned. We arrived back home Sunday afternoon, after spending a few days in South Florida.
Monday, April 23
I was going to get my weekly allergy shot at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pa., around noon. Dr. George Martin is not only the allergy guy-he’s my main doctor. As a patient of this for nearly 16 years, (plus being on TV), I perhaps get a bit of special treatment at his office.
So I went into the area to get my shot and asked one of the nurses: “Is it possible somebody can take a look at me-check my blood pressure or something? I had some chest pains last week.” It seemed like only seconds later when I was whisked into one of Dr. Martin’s exam rooms. Among other things, he took an EKG, which measures the electrical impulses on your heart. He compared it to a previous EKG of mine, and showed me the significant differences. The new one didn’t show those nice up and down lines-they were much flatter.
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As a result, they immediately got me into a wheelchair and took me to the emergency room. They did their own EKG, and told me I was going to have to stay overnight for more tests.
Tuesday, April 24
The main test was a cardiac catheterization that spreads dye through the arteries and shows the blockages. If there was enough blockage to require a stent, they would do it right then. I figured there may be some blockages, and maybe they would put me on some medication to correct it. Boy was I wrong!
“You have 99% blockage in the main artery. We call that one ‘The Widowmaker’”, said cardiac surgeon Francis Sutter. Plus about 80% blockage in another artery, in a very tricky area. Immediate surgery was needed, and it wouldn’t be able to be stents or “roto-rooter”, the more modern, less invasive types. This one would have to be the old-fashioned “zipper job”-cracking my chest open.
Wednesday, April 25
Surgery day. Due to so much anesthesia, there isn’t much to remember. But when I finally woke up, I was told that the surgery went very well. My left forearm was a combination of yellow and black & blue. Dr. Sutter explained that they were planning to take an artery out of my arm and another one from my thigh for the bypasses, but instead used arteries in my upper chest. “These will last much longer. Since you’re so young, this was a better option. They might last you 30 years or more. But since it’s more invasive than the other choices, the recovery might be tougher.” Fine by me. I have no interest in doing this over again in another 10 years as some others do.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Have you ever tried to sleep in Intensive Care? It’s not easy. They woke me up every 2 hours to check my blood sugar (which has never been a problem, but some people show a spike). Then the machine-attached blood pressure cuff would suddenly start, jolting me from any chance of even minimal sleep. Plus, I had what is known as “A-Fib” (atrial fibrillation), that caused my heart to not only pound loudly, but seem to jump all over my chest. They said it’s a fairly common side-effect of the surgery. And to top it all off, they had special beds to prevent bed sores. This involved a continuous massage-like feeling, like those fancy chairs at Brookstone.
The good part about not being able to sleep was all the time it gave me to be so grateful that this was caught in time, before any heart attack. Thinking about what might have been in Mexico, or Florida, or even on the plane coming back home, had me shaking my head. How much worse it could have been for me and so many others!
Cardiac rehab started last week. I’m now actually working out (no upper-body stuff for quite a while), on treadmills, bikes, and other machines. It’s great to feel and see the improvement each week, which makes the hard work so worthwhile. My favorite activities, swimming and racquetball will be about the last things I’ll be able to do, since my upper chest has been so ravaged.
Even today, there are times I wake up and, for a few seconds, think all of this was just some bad dream. There’s no way this could have happened! But the tightness in the chest area from the surgery jolts me into reality. The doctors say I’ll be just as strong, and probably have even more endurance than I did before.
Thanks to the great doctors, nurses, and entire staff at Lankenau, the whole experience was as pain-free as possible. The incredible help of my girlfriend Phyllis has made this so much easier than I would have expected. I can’t imagine going through this without her. It can’t be possible to go through this alone. Family and friends have given great support. And the good wishes and prayers of viewers I’ve never met have been overwhelming!
Everyone has been so wonderful that it’s hard to put into words. I can’t wait to get back on the air to express those thanks. And, by the way, it will be great to make and broadcast weather forecasts again. It’s what I’ve been working toward since I was ten. Getting to do what you love the most-another reason to be so grateful to have survived this shocking event.