Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Beginning

For nine years I outran my dead father. For thirty-five years I hoped I would always outrun him. You see my father died of a heart attack at the age of forty-one in 1975, just a few days after being released from the hospital. I was fifteen years old. I remember vaguely what the physician said when he told my family that my father was dead, “I just didn’t think he was that bad.” He was young and the ability to diagnose heart disease was not what it is today, so why would any physician think his condition was more serious than it presented?  His death left my young mother, who was a homemaker, to raise three children alone. Soon after his death we found some notes my father had written while in the hospital. He wrote about still having chest pain, getting his family ready for his death, and enjoying the short life he may have left. These notes, I’m sure, meant different things to each member of my family. To me they were advice on how to live. I learned early that life is very short and that we should live it to the fullest. His autopsy indicated that he had arteriosclerosis. The doctor told my mother that we kids should keep an eye on our lipid and triglyceride levels. Arteriosclerosis, lipids, and triglycerides were words that really didn’t mean much to a fifteen year old who was active in all sports, with his whole life ahead of him.

Over the years, when time and finances allowed me, I have traveled to many parts of the globe seeking adventures. I have been fortunate to travel, but I made it a priority too. My travel mantra is “Embrace All Things Funky.” No one drove, what I called, “the fun machine” harder or with more gusto. I became a climber of mountains. I trained hard for climbs and have stressed my heart beyond what most people have ever thought about doing. 

As I got older I paid more attention to my health and weight. Upon reaching my father’s age of forty-one, I jokingly called it “the death year.” Secretly, I was relieved when the year passed. My father’s genes have been a shadow following me. 

Well, that genetic shadow finally caught me three years ago, at the age of fifty. You probably guessed it-- I too had a heart attack. Of course, mine wasn’t fatal. Fortunately my home and office is located roughly a mile and a half away from Duke University Medical Center that has one of the finest cardiac departments in the country. After having extreme discomfort in my chest and arms and knowing something just wasn't right, I drove myself to the ER. I knew enough to take several baby aspirins before leaving the house. After a long night in the ICU, I had a catheterization to determine if I had any blockages. According to the physicians it was a mild heart attack with a 98% blockage in a minor artery. I can assure you that nothing feels “mild or minor” when you are sitting in cardiac intensive care after being told you've had a heart attack. They placed a stent in the blocked artery. Thanks to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease, I was given the care needed to keep me alive. If I was living in 1975 and presented with the same symptoms, I’m certain, like my father that I too would have been sent home and could have died.

The doctors said that all my other arteries looked as good as anyone else my age. My wife and I aren't afraid to ask lots of questions, so it wasn’t long before we asked, so if all the other arteries are fine, why did I have this heart attack in the first place? What I didn’t know and I’m sure many people who suffer hearts attacks don’t know, is that roughly 87% of heart attacks are caused by unstable arteries that suddenly rupture and cause a blood clot that then causes the artery to become blocked. Damn, if that wasn’t alarming to me. What would prevent it from happening again? Sure lowering my cholesterol would help, lowering my blood pressure could too, and a daily aspirin, but my cholesterol the day of my heart attack was 186. My (good cholesterol) HDL was 58. My LDL (bad cholesterol) was 124. I never had high blood pressure except the moment they told me I was having a heart attack. These were excellent numbers for anyone my age. I then asked if it was possible to have had a catheterization the week before that would have showed no blockages.  The reply was “Yes.” I nearly had another heart attack hearing this. I felt like I had a time bomb inside of me. 

After a few days I was sent home and began to read everything I could find online about heart disease and prevention. I discovered a book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic, and read about his research and the evidence that heart disease can be stopped and even reversed with diet. I read his book cover to cover over the weekend and on Monday I emailed his office to see about getting an appointment with him.  Within seconds I got a reply from his secretary indicating he did indeed accept new patients. In fact, he was having a seminar in a few weeks for new patients. That evening I got a call from Dr. Esselstyn himself. He asked about the details of my heart attack. He knew I was scared. He asked that I put my wife on the phone with us so she too could hear what he had to say. He was extremely passionate about his diet regimen and its positive effects on heart disease. So passionate that at first my wife and I suspected he was overselling his program. Was he just after our money? After the call we discussed our concerns and still decided to attend the seminar in Cleveland. After all, we’d never been to Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was there. My wife is also a research pharmacist for a large pharmaceuticals company and isn’t easily fooled by bogus research. After meeting Dr. Esselstyn it was clear, yes, he is very passionate about his work, but we also found him to be a knowledgeable physician with some very convincing research. He didn’t overstate his evidence and he has an impressive case series of close to 300 cardiac patients that he has followed beginning in the 1970's. We were convinced he was right about the diet-heart disease link. He believes, as I now do, that heart disease is a food-borne illness and if you follow his diet you can prevent further damage to blood vessels, and even reverse the damage that has already been done. This visit changed my life forever.

Before my heart attack I ate pretty well. Since I was married to a vegan we ate mostly vegan meals at home. I liked eating this way. My downfall was the occasional binge on bad foods. Sure, I ate hot dogs and other nasty foods, but it was not the norm. When I was around food I would eat food, especially fatty foods. Parties and the visits to relatives’ homes were the worst times because I would graze on whatever food was available. My weight ballooned up then back down over the years. When I was training for a climb my weight would go down to a trim, fit weight. Once back home the weight would slowly go back on. My weight gain over the years would swing between twenty and forty pounds. My wife kept telling me I should be a vegan, but I kept resisting. Well, it goes without saying that she was right. She mostly always is. Yes, I'm now a committed vegan, but with one slight modification, I also don't eat oil of any kind, in anything. I follow Dr. Esselstyn's diet very strictly. 

Since being on a vegan oil-free diet for nearly three years now, I've dropped those nagging twenty-five pounds with hardly any effort. My last total cholesterol was 88, HDL 48, LDL 35 and my blood pressure, unmedicated, runs around 105/68. I'm back doing the physically demanding things I like to do.

I have learned much from my heart attack. I've certainly learned a great deal about cardiovascular disease and its prevention and treatment. I want to live doing the physical things I like to do. Living healthy and continuing to climb mountains and traveling is important to me. It is who I am. Through my father’s heart attack and death, I learned many years ago to see life as a gift. It’s through my own heart attack that I learned even more about my father. I know well what his fear must have been leaving the security of the hospital after his heart attack because I too have lived that fear. I have lived his chest pain. I have lived the fear of looking at the faces of the ones you love knowing you may not be here with them for long. Living through these fears has made me stronger. My father's notes, written by his hand over thirty-eight years ago, still speak to me. Life is very short and it’s important to live it accordingly. In some strange way these two heart attacks have been a gift.

As I said, I like to climb mountains. Before my heart attack I had been considering an attempt of Mount Everest. In fact, the very first time I saw my new Duke cardiologist after my heart attack, I told him that I wanted to climb Everest in two years. He looked stunned but took me seriously. Those two years have turned into three, but the day has come and I am planning to climb Everest this April and May. On my last check-up a few months ago with my cardiologist we discussed again my heart and the Everest climb. He thinks I'm crazy for wanting to climb Everest for many reasons other than my heart, but I noticed on the discharge sheet that he handed me at the end of our appointment, that he had written, "Good luck on Everest." Those four words meant a lot to me. 

My dream to climb Mt. Everest began many years ago in the library of Effie Green Elementary school. There was a book about the first American team to climb Mt. Everest. The vivid pictures of the mountain and the climbers fascinated me. I checked that book out over and over again, and over again. I've often wondered if that book is still there. I studied everything about that book - the pictures of the mountain, the route, the climbers, the preparations, the gear and clothes they used. I never got it out of my mind and I never thought that one day I would have the skills to attempt such a climb. 

Many people will ask why climb Everest? Some people will say it's too dangerous, especially after having had a heart attack. To those people I have to admit I really don't have a good answer. The reasons to climb are many and hard to put into words. 

Mostly, I want to take a good measure of this big mountain that has fascinated me since I was a small child. I want to see and feel it up close, to smell it, to taste it, to fear it, to respect it, to enjoy the process of planning, training, and climbing it. Maybe it's because I simply cannot imagine looking back on my life and not having given it a try. As someone once said, we usually regret the things we didn't do, not the things we did do. 

Yes, my heart and diet are a huge concern! Trust me I will, as I have for nearly three years, be monitoring for any sign of trouble with every step I take. The oil-free diet will be a challenge. Nepal isn't known for its oil-free vegan cuisine. In fact, it's some of the oiliest food I've ever eaten. After several good conversations with my friend and expedition leader Jim Williams, we think we can make it work. It's been said that Jim's the finest chef on the mountain, so it's good that he understands food. He also uses my Sherpa friend Jetta as his base camp cook. I know that Jim and Jetta will figure it out and prepare some awesome meals. It will be great to show that you can survive a heart attack, and if you do the right things, you can continue to live an active life, and that eating an oil-free vegan diet doesn't have to limit what you do physically. 

At the age of fifty-three, I'm sure as hell not getting any younger physically. It's getting harder and harder to ignore, train, and climb with two surgically improved knees, a bone on bone left ankle, a torn labium in my right shoulder, hip bursitis, and now heart disease. But even with these nagging issues, I do feel very fit and healthy. In some ways climbing Everest is now or never. Or better yet, after years of dreaming about climbing Everest, it's as my mother used to jokingly say, "it's time to shit or get off the pot.”

Climbing Everest takes roughly two months and being away from my wife Barbara for so long will not be easy. I will miss her terribly. We have a great life together. There are days, as it gets closer, where it feels very foolish, too expensive, and too selfish to climb it. Maybe it's true. Sure I am scared, but at the same time excited. This is mentally going to be a very tough challenge. I have the climbing skills, I've trained hard, and I've been on other tough mountains, but this climb will test all those skills and much more. 

Whatever the reason, I know attempting to climb Mt. Everest will be a true adventure, embracing all things funky, and continuing me down a path I started many years ago. Hopefully, if I can stay healthy, the weather cooperates, and everything falls into place just right, then maybe, just maybe, with some luck, I will stand on its summit. That would be icing on an already awesome cake. 

Here's what George Mallory, one of the very first legendary climbers of Mt. Everest, had to say about climbing Mt. Everest:

“People ask me, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is of no use. 'There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron... If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.” 

As for this blog…I'm not sure what it will be. Deciding to start a blog is intimidating. I'm not a writer. I can occasionally tell a good story in person, but trying now to put words onto paper for the world to read is hard. Very hard. Those who know me well know that I'm a private person too. Over the years, I've followed many impressive blogs of people climbing Mt. Everest and have learned much from them. Some feel like friends and climbing companions. One of the best is Alan and I have become virtual friends over the years. He uses his climbs and blog to raise money and awareness toward ending Alzheimer's. It you are following my blog and want to read informed daily coverage of all the teams and climbers on Everest, visit his website, and if so inclined, give a donation - Alan will appreciate it. You can also follow our expedition's daily dispatches at 

I can't imagine that this blog will be as well written or interesting as some of the ones I've read. The best that I can hope for is that it will be an honest account of what I’m feeling and experiencing on the mountain. Good or bad, it will be me. I can't promise to even keep writing it; if it appears to be getting in the way of my being present in the moment on the mountain, I may stop the blog or at least not write as often. After all, I dream about climbing Mt. Everest not blogging about it. 

So that's my story and plan to climb Mt. Everest. Thanks for reading.