• Sanjay Says
  • Posts
  • My Heart Attack Was One of the Best Things That Ever Happened to Me

My Heart Attack Was One of the Best Things That Ever Happened to Me

You can’t judge the value of an event without a little perspective

Click here to read this story on Medium.com
Surgeons high-fiving over a patient on hospital bed

Happy surgeons and happy patient — created in Midjourney

It was the fall of 2006, a few months before I was to marry my wife Rishika. She was visiting Canada for a week, taking some time off from shuttling between Germany and India for her flight attendant job with Lufthansa.

On a Saturday afternoon in October, we went to see a horrible Indian movie, Umrao Jaan, headlined by Aishwarya Rai. My left arm started tingling a little, and since the movie was boring anyway, I decided to take a quick walk in the empty halls of the cinema. The pain steadily got worse, and by the time I returned to the movie, I leaned in to Rishika and said, “This movie is terrible. We have to go.” She must have seen something in my face because she didn’t object and we rapidly headed to the parking lot.

I started the car, and we headed downtown to my condo. My arm was hurting less now, and I just wanted to get home. A few minutes into the drive, though, I began to feel nauseated, and Rishika asked me, “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”

I assured her I was fine, but a few minutes later I pulled the car over on the side of a busy highway, feeling the need to throw up. The cool night air calmed me down a little, and I stepped over a guardrail to lie down on the dirty grass, feeling the nausea come back, but thinking it would go away if I could just lie there for a few minutes. Rishika got out of the car and stood over me, asking anxiously, “Sanjay, what’s wrong?”

“Just give me a minute. I’ll be fine,” I said, even as my brain started to process the fact that I was exhibiting all the classic signs of a heart attack. As I lay there, I felt like going to sleep, so I closed my eyes and began to drift, but then I pictured Rishika — standing on the roadside not knowing what to do, in an unfamiliar country, with her husband-to-be sprawled on the ground — and my eyes snapped open.

I thought to myself, “Damned if I’m going to die on the side of the Don Valley Parkway while my fiancée watches,” and I hauled myself up, got back behind the wheel, and said to her, “I think I might be having a heart attack. There’s a hospital on the way to my condo. We’ll stop and see what they say.”

As I put the car in gear, my head started to clear and the nausea ebbed. I drove carefully to St. Michael’s hospital, only a few minutes from my condo.

Note to readers: driving yourself to the hospital while having a heart attack is a terrible idea. If I wasn’t having a heart attack at the time, I would have known that.

A close friend of mine had done his cardiology residency at St. Michael’s several years earlier, so I was familiar with the location of the building. By the time we got there, I was feeling markedly better and decided to park in a garage across from the hospital rather than pulling into emergency. I didn’t want to feel like an idiot if it turned out I was just the victim of a bad mayo sandwich and an overactive imagination.

As we walked up to the hospital door, I slowed and said to Rishika, “You know, I’m feeling a lot better. Let’s just go home.”

She glared at me. “Not a chance. We’re here now. Let’s see what they say.”

After I repeated my symptoms and joked that it was probably nothing, a triage nurse told me to wait a moment and made a phone call. I mentally prepared myself for a long wait in an uncomfortable chair.

But just two minutes later, an orderly in a green smock approached me and asked me to come with him. I was quickly put on a bed, wired up to several machines, and fit with an IV; then they took blood samples. I was used to waiting several hours for treatment in emergency rooms, and the rapid response surprised me.

“I thought there were quite a few people in the emergency room, how did I get a bed so quickly?” I asked one of the nurses.

She didn’t give me an answer; all she would say was, “The doctor will be here soon, and he can answer your questions.”

By now I was feeling completely normal, and I was dreading having the doctor come see me and tell me nothing was wrong. When the doctor arrived an hour later, he sat down beside me and started making notes on a clipboard. “Uh, can I go now?” I asked.

He looked me up and down and said, “No, I think you’re going to be here for a few days.”

“A few days?” I said. “I feel fine!”

“You’re not fine. You just had a myocardial infarction.” He then added, “You had a heart attack.”

As I was wheeled out of the treatment room into recovery with my eyes closed, I heard a nurse say, “He just had a heart attack? He looks pretty good for fifty.” The other nurse said, “That’s because he’s forty.”

Author in hospital bed after heart attack

Author looking pretty good for 50 — photo by author

The next morning, the doctor visited me and said, “You’re going to be just fine. It was a minor heart attack. In fact, there was practically no damage to the heart, and a quick administration of blood thinner dissolved the clot. We’ll have to put in a stent to keep the damaged artery open, but other than that you got off easy. How did you manage to recognize the symptoms and get to the hospital so quickly?”

I grimaced. “I was in a bad movie, so the arm pain was a good excuse to leave.”

He laughed and patted my arm. “Well, it’s a good thing it wasn’t a thriller. Things would have been a lot worse.”

After he left, I grinned and said to a relieved Rishika, “I’m alive today because Aishwarya Rai can’t act!”

Relief gave way to more concern the next day as I woke up and contemplated the surgery I would be getting to put a stent in the main artery to my heart.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself and at one point, while lying in the hospital bed, I suggested to Rishika that she might not want to go through with the marriage.

I was madly in love, but I didn’t want her to feel trapped, especially since I was 11 years older than her and appeared to be in poor health. Her eyes glistened when she responded, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and I’ll never know what really went through her mind, but it is to my ever-lasting benefit that she decided to go through with the marriage.

That’s also why this article isn’t called the best thing that ever happened to me.

Author and his wife Rishika during their wedding reception

Only four months after my heart attack — healthier already! — photo by author

Here’s a question for you. When was the least healthy day of my life? Was it that day in the hospital, having escaped death?

No. I was in the worst health of my life the day before I had my heart attack. Because after my heart attack, I began to eat better and exercise more intensively. I also got put on a raftload of medicines to reduce my cholesterol, normalize my blood pressure, and control my insulin levels.

It’s not so much that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it’s that nearly getting killed wakes you up and forces you to reconsider your life, making new and different decisions that make you stronger.

The tests they conducted at the time of my heart attack revealed that I had a congenital problem with the way the arteries to my heart were constructed, on top of the regular South Asian tendency to have high cholesterol and diabetes, despite my weight being pretty average.

If I had had an angiogram scan of my heart when I was in my 20s, any cardiologist would have put me on statins to reduce my cholesterol right away. And I’ve since been told that if your stomach and pocketbook can handle it, everybody with even a remote risk of diabetes (i.e. any South Asian over the age of 30) should be on Metformin, a drug that makes your body more sensitive to insulin.

What this means is that if I had taken proper precautions, I would never have had a heart attack, but since the one I did have didn’t kill me, I was able to take all the proper precautions to prevent a second one.

In addition to the medical precautions, these days I get more sleep, I meditate, I do yoga, and I journal. The stress reduction, coupled with regular exercise and better nutrition has put me in the best health of my life.

If you haven’t had a heart attack or other lethal warning, then may I suggest that you may not be in the best health of your life, and you might want to take action now, before you get the slap up side the head I got at age 40?

Take charge of your own future. Start by reading the book Outlive by Dr. Peter Attia. Understand the vocabulary of personal health. Start taking certain medicines before you need them, if you can afford it.

Do it now, before your body forces you to do it. You may be focused on relationships, or career, or raising kids, and yes those are important, but your personal health takes priority over absolutely everything else. Put your own face mask on before you help others.

I was lucky and the message to take better care of myself didn’t kill me as it does many others. Don’t let a heart attack be one of the best things that ever happened to you.

Let it be your next visit to the doctor.

This article is substantially extended from the original version appearing as a chapter in my autobiography, “Zero to Tesla”. I have more perspective now.

I write so I can connect with my readers. You can reach me by responding to this email, by commenting on my website, or by responding to the poll below.

Thanks for reading!

Anonymous feedback appreciated, what did you think of this post?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.