Steve Huffman: Heartfelt advice — get those tickers checked, people

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 9, 2023

By Steve Huffman

My assumption I was invincible took a hit last fall when an emergency room doctor addressed me.

“Mr. Huffman,” he said, “did you know you’ve had a series of heart attacks, including a fairly major one in the past few days?”

Uh, no.

It’s a long story and I’ll try to be concise.

Last September, I had hernia surgery. It went well, leaving me sore, but expecting a speedy recovery.

But the following week, I didn’t feel well. It’s hard to describe, but I felt worse than I expected to feel, even having just undergone hernia surgery.

About five days post-op, I found myself short of breath. Nothing major, I thought, but to be on the safe side I called my wife, Meg, a retired nurse who was visiting grandchildren in Charlotte.

Meg was concerned. She feared my shortness of breath was a sign I’d developed a blood clot from surgery. She told me I needed to go to a walk-in medical facility to be tested for such.

I’m of the opinion her advice may have saved my life.

The doctor at the walk-in clinic sent me to a lab to be tested for the possibility of a blood clot. (The test’s name is a D-dimer. I checked with Meg about the spelling).

Later that afternoon, a nurse at the walk-in clinic called to say they’d gotten my test results, that I’d tested high for the possibility of a blood clot, and I needed to go immediately to a hospital emergency room. At the hospital, a battery of tests revealed I’d been having heart attacks, probably off and on for several months.

I learned a lot about heart attacks that day. Until that point, I’d assumed a heart attack involved a sharp pain in the chest and numbness of the left arm. I had neither.

In fact, for a 65-year-old man who could stand to lose a few pounds, I felt pretty good. My health wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t run 10-k races like I did 40 years back, but I usually walked at least 2 miles a day and did pretty much whatever I wanted. I played golf several times a week. I occasionally pedaled an old bike around the neighborhood. I’ve never smoked.

Even the morning I went to the walk-in clinic to be treated for shortness of breath I’d been doing yard work and trimming tree branches using a handsaw.

I was enjoying myself as I eased into old age, or whatever it is we’re supposed to ease into as we grow older.

None of that mattered, several heart doctors told me. I had serious problems with my ticker.

“You could as easily be dead as alive,” one said.

The surgeon who performed my bypass the following week said the arteries feeding my heart were a mess. My widow-maker artery was 100 percent blocked as were several others.

The only thing keeping me alive, my surgeon said, was a single artery that remained 40 percent open.

“If that one closes down, this conversation isn’t happening because you’re dead,” he told me.

The good news, I came through open heart surgery well. The day following surgery was as painful as I’ve experienced, but modern medicine is a wonderful thing. I spent two nights in intensive care and another two nights in a regular hospital room. Then I was sent home.

I’m back to walking 2 miles a day. I’m back to playing golf several times a week. I haven’t lifted a salt shaker since surgery.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I appreciate it and ask you to do me a favor: Get your heart checked. And listen to what your doctor tells you.

I’d had high blood pressure and cholesterol for years. I’d take medication sporadically, usually giving up after a week or two, silently berating myself, convinced that if I’d just lose 20 pounds everything would straighten itself out.

My stubbornness almost cost me my life. Don’t make the same mistake.

One other thing, going into my bypass, the surgeon told me my arteries were in such bad shape there was a 5 percent chance I’d die on the operating table.

Hearing such prompted me to write my obit. I found doing so more therapeutic than morbid, though it also reminded me of how little I’d accomplished in life.

If one person gets their heart tested as a result of reading this, it’ll be among my proudest accomplishments.

Steve Huffman is an unemployed journalist who receives his social security checks at his home in Greensboro. He was a staff writer and copy editor at the Salisbury Post for 10 years. Contact him at