Having a Heart Procedure:

An Armwrestler’s Adventure with Angioplasty


--by Merle Meeter


            After 10-15 years of (stubbornly, foolish, macho-ly) ignoring shortness of breath and an occasional chest pain (angina) when I walked too far or too fast, I reluctantly decided at age 66 to check out the condition of my coronary (heart) arteries.  Apparently such a decision typically comes hard for a man, but my loyal wife Gloria and faithful buddy John De Vries, especially, persisted, so finally, prodded also by God through my conscience I went in for an EKG.


My college weight of 200 had inched (pounded?) up to 250 over the years, and when I didn’t watch it for a month or two, it would go up as high as 268, as it did at the Reno Reunion II Armwrestling Tournament last January.  Well, the EKG (electrocardiogram) said my heart was normal, which was encouraging, but I still knew I had problems.  I discovered that an EKG tells you absolutely nothing about blockages (partial or complete plaque buildups of hardened cholesterol) in the coronary arteries.  By the way, beware: you can have a “normal” cholesterol reading (150-200) and still have serious plaque deposits clogging your arteries.


            So providentially having Kaiser Senior Advantage Medicare, through Social Security at age 65, I scheduled a treadmill-X-ray test, which uses an isotope dye in the veins.  Again the treadmill test told me only that I was huffing and puffing too soon, out of shape.  But then I was put down on my back for a half hour while a moving X-ray unit semi-circled (like the sun) very slowly and haltingly over my chest, from right to left side, taking a hundred or so pictures.  This was done twice: once after the treadmill test, and two days later, without the treadmill walk preceding.


            Now that should tell me everything, I figured!  But a few days later, my primary-care physician called and said that some dark spots on my heart in the X-ray indicated it was not getting enough blood in those areas, and that I possibly had “some blockage” in two, maybe three, arteries. That wasn’t very precise, but it did suggest that my problems had not been imaginary, merely in my head.  So my doctor prescribed some (tiny) nitroglycerin tablets:  “Take one and let it dissolve under your tongue if you get a chest pain.  Repeat 1 tablet every 5 minutes if pain continues, up to 3 tablets total.  Then if pain persists, call 911 immediately!”


            A few mornings later, a Saturday, I went to the bathroom at 5 A.M. and came back to sit on the edge of the bed, feeling sickish.  Though I really didn’t have an actual pain, I thought, “Time to try one of those nitro tablets.”  I did so, but still felt sick-like, and took a second, then woke Gloria and mumbles, “I don’t feel so good.”  She gave me a third nitro tablet, not knowing I had a fourth nitro, which completed the job, and as I passed out, moaning, she called 911.


            Well, nitroglycerin lowers the blood pressure, and so 4 of them knocked me out, but I found, out happily—after the paramedics deposited me gently in the Grossmont Hospital Emergency Room—that I hadn’t had a heart attack or suffered any heart damage.  And that’s the way the Lord eased me into the system, possibly bypassing several weeks of multiple appointments and procedural delays.


            Next stop was Zion Hospital (a Kaiser facility a few miles away), where the cardiologists decided that since I was there already, I might as well go to Scripps Hospital in La Jolla and have an angiogram (a tube up the femoral artery in the right groin to the heart) to check out my coronary arteries and view which ones had blockages and how much (a percentage) each was clogged.  (A blockage or obstruction is usually less than an inch long.)


            “Now we’re getting somewhere!” I thought.  But then the cardiologist added,  “If the blockage is significant, they’ll go right ahead and do an angioplasty while you’re on the table.  The use local anesthetic, so you can watch on the monitor if you’d like.  The whole procedure lasts about 45 minutes.  They use a little balloon to widen the narrowed place in the artery, and then they insert and expand a little wire-mesh titanium tube called a stent, that stays in permanently to hold the artery open…But if the blockage is too great, they’ll schedule you for bypass the next day.”


            “Whoa!” I thought.  “We’re moving’ a little fast here!”  Bypass surgery means a split sternum, cracked ribs, staples in the chest, a long, long recuperation, and probably the end of my late begun, 5-year-old, tournament armwrestling career.  But I just swallowed and nodded, silently praying that the easier (far less-invasive) angioplasty would do the trick.


            Surprisingly, the angiogram was virtually painless.  It showed one major artery 100% blocked.  “It’s amazing you haven’t had a massive coronary,” remarked the surgeon conversationally.  That sort of shut me up for ten minutes or so, and then I ventured, rather subdued, “How’s it going?”  The surgeon stripped off his rubber gloves and tossed them into a plastic bucket, saying casually, “The stents are already in—two of them.  You should be fine.”  Thus, in less than 45 minutes I was back in my room, kind of dazed, but talking cheerfully with Gloria and our three daughters who live nearby Cyndi, Sally, and Mary.  “That was it?” I recall thinking.


            Four hours later, my chest was suddenly hurting bad, like a belt was around it; I couldn’t breathe, I was suffocating!  People were on either side of the bed—I was fighting to sit up, begging for another pillow under my head, asking God for mercy.  Gloria was there too, talking to me, trying—with the doctors and nurses—to calm and hold me down.  No one was saying what was wrong.  At long last, the morphine took effect, and I was no longer aware of the battle being fought.


            Somehow an artery had been nicked, and two quarts of blood had leaked into my chest cavity.  They worked on me for 9 hours, doing CPR and suctioning out blood.  I coughed up part of a lung, which blocked the airway, and my heart stopped for 15 seconds while they cleared my windpipe.  I was deep down in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Later, I thought of all the people praying for me, and I realized with awe that I’d needed every last one of those prayers—even those of our smallest grandchildren—for Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to lift me up into life again and break the grip of the Devil, who was determined to drag me down into death.


            I woke up alone in my hospital room with a young male nurse, a quiet, personable guy, who said, “You want something to drink?  There’s a tray out there, but everything’s probably cold. . .You want some orange juice?” “Sounds good,” I said.  “Some milk?”  “Sounds good!” I said.  “How about some Jell-O?”  “Okay,” I said, starting too feel hungry. 


“What time is it,” I asked, “about 8 o’clock?”  “It’s 10:30,” he replied.  “I slept that late?” I said, surprised.  “It’s 10:30 at night,” he answered, looking at me strangely.  And that’s when I found out they’d fought for my life from noon that Monday until 9 P.M.—but it still didn’t really register until the next day.


            Being a kind of active sports fanatic: volleyball in my forties, tennis and 10-Ks in my fifties, armwrestling in my sixties, I wanted to get home on Wednesday and start walking, not realizing how weak I had suddenly become from the trauma of that long Monday.  So I got the flu, sore throat, low-grade fever, and headaches, which I made far worse by trying to walk too many minutes the first days, back and forth, back and forth in our mobile home.  Before the angioplasty, I had been walking 30 minutes (pretty slowly) on our treadmill, but now when I first tried it, at its slowest (1.7 mph), I fell off the back end after only 30 seconds!  I realized then, dizzy and heart-pounding, that rehab was going to take a tad longer than I’d anticipated. 


            I had my angioplasty on March 20, and I’ writing this on May 4.  Our Loving Lord has sustained me through periods of weakness, neck pain, perplexity, depression, changing/dropping medications, and reorientation to reality (the world of the living), as well as fearfully light poundages as I gradually, but persistently, resumed my various armwrestling exercises.  I’m glad I’m alive, though, thankful, sometimes tearful, sometimes fearful, sometimes excited, increasingly rejoicing, and always eager to compete again.


            Yesterday, I finally walked my first full hour (60 consecutive minutes) on the treadmill, at a slow-to-medium speed—probably about 2.3 mph—but I taped that digital indicator over so I don’t become compulsive about increasing the speed too fast.  I plan, the Lord willing, to talk 1 hour a day 3 days a week.  On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, I do my armwrestling-specific training at Scottie’s Mom’s Garage, whether or not Scottie (Ciborowski) or Greg (Gray) joins me in my workout.  I’m almost back to my pre-procedure strength and endurance, praise God…


            “That plaque in your arteries didn’t get there overnight,” said my cardiologist.  “It probably took 20 years to stick there and harden.”  My present concern, however, is that plaque begins to build up again most of the time, especially for those who’ve had a problem with such cholesterol blockage, and, then, frequently both the angioplasties and the bypasses have to be repeated.  Horrible thought!  (But for hope, see Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, Dean Ornish, M.D., Ballantine Books, New York, 1990.)


            So what can I—and you—do to prevent coronary artery disease?  First, you have to walk (cycle, swim, or jog—If you’re young) 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week at a brisk rate, or 1 hour 3 times a week.  Walking, by the way, is easier than jogging on the arches and the knee and hip joints, but be sure to buy top-grade specifically walking shoes.


            Second, you have to school yourself to keep the stress down, to worry less and pray more (“casting all your cares upon the Lord, Who cares for you”), for stress causes the body—which, incidentally, makes cholesterol—to churn the deadly stuff out at a great rate.  Moreover, extreme stress can actually cause the muscular walls of the arteries to constrict and thereby cause a person to have a heart attack or a stroke.  Both result from a lack of oxygen, which life-sustaining element is carried by the blood.  Constricted arteries mean less blood, ad, therefore, less oxygen!  Without oxygen, the heart and the brain die.  The message: control your temper, your irritability, your impatience, or they’ll literally kill you!  For such control, we need God’s Holy Spirit living in our hearts.


            Third, and this may hardest of all for many of us—for 66 years I ate what I wanted, but now I have to eat what the Lord wants me to eat.  Also, I was told by my cardiologist that they don’t even mention arteries build up plaque, but also arteries to the head, the legs, and the arms.  So the $64 dollar question is, Can you halt or even reverse the blockage in your arteries?  Yes, you can, by the above walking program, by stress reduction through practice and prayer, and by eating foods containing close to 0% fat and cholesterol. 


            Also, of course, go easy on the salt (which pushes up the blood pressure and makes you waterlogged), the sugar, liquor, and caffeine, cutting out what you can.  And quit smoking!  (My Dad choked to death on his own blood—as I held him in the hospital—because of years of smoking.)


            I’m down from 268 to 236, which is an encouraging start after about two months, and my blood pressure is back to normal 124/76, so I no longer need blood-pressure medication, praise God!  Now I’m working on preventing further plaque accumulation, and also on actually dissolving what’s already in my arteries, which is a slow, gradual process, true, but possible, and certainly worthwhile.


            Start to read content-labels on cans and cartons.  You’ll be amazed how much delicious food has almost no total fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, cholesterol (and sodium).  They’re all bad for you.  Fat is fat, regardless of the technical name, so avoid it!  Cooking oils are 100% liquid fat, so eat very little of them and that includes olive oil and canola oil.  “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spray, however—on bread, baked potatoes, popcorn—has 0% total fat and 0% cholesterol.  And many grocers carry a sodium-free salt substitute that you’ll soon get used to.


            I tremble to mention it, but animal fat is the main culprit in plaque buildup, blocked arteries, angioplasties, bypasses (quadruple, quintuple, even sextuple), and deaths by heart attack or stroke—other than death resulting from extreme stress or rage, which can virtually choke major arteriesl l l    Therefore, it took me about two weeks to become a vegetarian/grainarian/fruitarian.  I still take my vitamin-mineral super-tablet, of course, and a vitamin C, a vitamin E, land a B-complex, as well as 6 apricot seeds daily for vitamin B-17 (laetrile) to prevent cancer.  (B-17 is not available in stores.)  Also, Gloria and I are thankfully aware of the countless prayers of our six married children and their spouses, the grandchildren, and of other friends, for us to lose weight and begin to eat right.


            For breakfast nowadays I have a glass of 1% milk on my cereal (shredded wheat, Wheat Chex, or Wheaties), 1 teaspoon of sugar, my vitamins, 6 apricot seeds, and a glass of cold water.  At noon I eat a slice of Henry’s Sprouted Seven-Grain Bread (yum!—tastes like nuts) with raspberry jam, and a 10-ounce glass of 100% natural orange juice.  And for supper (dinner, if you prefer), would you believe it?  No meat or egg yolks, but occasional low-fat cheese.  I drink a 5.5 oz. Can of nonsodium V-8 juice, and sometimes also a similar amount of 1% milk.  Five green olives or ten large peanuts provide the remaining few grams of vegetable fat that the body needs daily.


            Supper is also the time to enjoy all kinds of vegetables and fruit.  Leaf-lettuce salad with red (mild) onion slices, strips of green pepper, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, and a tablespoon of low-cal, no-fat cheese dressing.  Perhaps split-pea soup with a ham bone—I confess to eating a few shreds of ham in this—or Chinese vegetable stir-fries, Boston-baked beans, cole slaw, rice-and-bean tortillas, vegetarian pizza (five toppings!)—but easy on the cheese.  I’m thankful, too that Gloria d I both like green beans, sweet corn, broccoli, carrots, and peas.  And for dessert, blueberry muffins, baked apples or pears, melons, bananas, grapes, strawberries, grapefruit, plums, or cherries.  Moreover, all the above foods are less expensive than most meat.


            Gloria, always a great cook, is getting into the swing of preparing new things, like naturally fat-free “Egg Beaters” for corn bread or as scrambled eggs, pumpkin bread, cinnamon apple sauce, cranberry-orange sauce, lentil-and-7-bean soup, or brown, long-grain wild-rice and chili-bean soup—I’m thinking the possibilities are endless!  There are whole cookbooks of tasty vegetarian/grainarian/fruitarian options, but my wife’s the chef—or should I insert the i (chief)?


            I’m now trying to find a low-sugar or peach pie—I’m sure they’ve been successfully, delectable baked.  Can you believe I’ve already lost my boyish craving for a jumbo double-burger, with super-large fries, and a 20 –ounce chocolate-mocha malt,  Well, almost.  But when it’s a matter of life or death, and you still enjoy life, you may be surprised what you can change for the better with God’s help and blessing.


Merle Meeter  
El Cajon, California  
619 596-7646



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