Ministry is tough, and ministry is stressful, and it can even affect your health. In August of 2017, I had a mild heart attack. There are some words you never expect to hear. For me, I never thought I would hear someone tell me that I was having a heart attack. But at 44 years old, I was shocked to find out that the minor chest pains and tightness were not heartburn, but a real heart attack.
I’ve not shared much publicly about what happened, in part because I’m still trying to process everything that happened. Thankfully, it didn’t do any major damage to my heart, and I want to share more about my experience in hopes of helping others. I apologize in advance for the long post, but many of you don’t know the details of what happened.
We were moving my daughter into college for her freshman year at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. On the Sunday after move-in, we met early to go to church with her before leaving. It was a hot morning, and we waited outside for a long time. As we were walking towards the auditorium, I started feeling really bad. I broke out in a cold sweat, and I was struggling to catch my breath. I had minor chest pain, but it really wasn’t that bad. Even with all those symptoms, I just thought it was the heat and lack of food on a Sunday morning. I made it through the church service (we sat on the front row), and I still was having minor chest pain. I thought it must be heartburn, and I didn’t think much about it. I was also enjoying the message at the chapel that morning by Clayton King. In hindsight, it’s really pretty obvious that I should have gone to the Emergency Room, but at the time, I just rationalized all my symptoms. In fact, I kept feeling rough for a couple more days. Then I was fine. Or so I thought.
About a week later, I woke up in the middle of the night with chest pain again. I was short of breath again as well. This time, I went to a local urgent care later that morning to get checked out, although I was sure it was just heartburn. They did an EKG but didn’t find anything abnormal. Just in case, they took some blood to send off for lab work and then sent me home with instructions to treat my heartburn. After about 8 or 10 hours, I start feeling better and even went to my son’s cross country meet and ran around the field to cheer him on.
Jennifer and I left for Boone, North Carolina that evening to get away for a few days, and it was there when I received the phone call that I was not expecting. The lab had sent back the results of my bloodwork, and I quickly found out that my troponin levels were elevated and showed that I had a heart attack. The doctor instructed me to go straight to the emergency room and let them know what was happening. At the hospital, they immediately did another blood test, which found my levels were still elevated and they decided to do an immediate cardiac catheterization. Within thirty minutes of arriving at the hospital, I was under anesthesia and having my heart examined. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to process what was actually happening. I really was in shock.
They found a complete blockage in my left anterior descending artery, but the location of the occlusion was at the very end of the artery so they were unable to place a stent. If the location of the blockage had been anywhere else in the artery, I probably wouldn’t be here today. That type of heart attack has been termed the widow-maker for a reason.
WHY IT HAPPENED
That’s the unanswered question. My cardiologists are still not sure why it happened. I did have an unusually low level of “good” HDL cholesterol, so my ratio of LDL to HDL put me at risk for a heart attack. Even though my overall cholesterol was only around 100 at the time of the heart attack, I was still in danger. I had been running some earlier in the week before my first episode with heart pain. I ran over two miles, but I went back and checked my Apple Watch and found that my heart rate was pushing 200 during the run. However, there is really no way to know what caused it. For now, my focus is on preventing it from happening again.
HOW MY LIFE HAS CHANGED
I have never taken any medicine. I rarely even take an Advil or Tylenol. But now, I’m on several medications for my heart. Basically, they want to slow my heart down and lower my blood pressure. I’m also on medicine to lower my cholesterol so that my LDL levels stay low. Thankfully, over the past 15 months, my medications have been lowered multiple times. The new normal for my life is focusing on exercise, keeping my heart rate under control, and watching what I eat. Although I ate healthy before, I have been trying to be more careful in what I eat.
The heart attack has given me a new appreciation for my family and church. Jennifer has been amazing through this whole ordeal, and my church has supported me every step of the way. I have cherished the time I have with my children, and I’m enjoying every moment I get to spend with them.
I’m also supposed to lower my stress level. But with my role as pastor, that’s something I’m continuing to work on. The work of a pastor is high stress. Pastors have to deal with conflict in the church, financial struggles, and criticism. Our church has been awesome, but we are not immune to people struggling. I’ve heard that pastors must have tough skin and a soft heart, and I’m still working on both.
WHAT I WANT TO SHARE WITH YOU
First, don’t take your life for granted. Every breath you take is a gift from God. So use your life to make a difference! God comes first, then your family, and then work. At times in my life, I have let ministry take priority over my family. I’m trying hard to not do that anymore. It’s hard to explain, but I feel my heart attack has brought our family closer together. My wife has been supportive and strong, and has really helped me to keep my focus on Christ throughout this experience.
Second, learn the symptoms of a heart attack and take them seriously. Don’t do what I did and try to explain them away. I thought all heart attacks consisted of acute pain and unmistakable symptoms. I’ve learned that symptoms can be very mild, and they are a warning sign that you need help. I thought I was too healthy to have a heart attack, and it almost cost me dearly.
From the American Heart Association
Don’t wait to get help if you experience any of these heart attack warning signs. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. But most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Pay attention to your body and call 911 if you experience:
- Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes – or it may go away and then return. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath. This can occur with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs. Other possible signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.