As a distiller, Dave Conway, then 30, used to work in a hot environment, which included climbing stairs and rolling barrels. He wasn’t so surprised when he felt dizzy and tired. After Googling his symptoms, he thought he had heat exhaustion, but they didn’t improve and soon he was struggling to breathe. Once again, he turned to the Internet and thought that perhaps pneumonia was to blame.
“I started to feel short of breath,” the 34-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, tells TODAY.com. “I got bored more easily. I was coughing more.” He went to urgent care at the urging of his boss about three weeks after he first felt dizzy. Urgent care referred him to the emergency room, where he discovered what was wrong.
“I actually had 100% blockage in the left anterior descending artery, which is known as a ‘widow maker’ heart attack,” he says. “I like to joke that I wasn’t married at the time, so it didn’t work out.”
Dizziness, shortness of breath and cough
On September 6, 2018, when Conway first felt dizzy, he thought it was from a hot day at work and relaxed with a beer before heading home to shower.
“I was more tired than usual, feeling dizzy, dizzy. I was sweating but feeling cold,” he explained. “I went into WebMD and typed in my symptoms and it’s like ‘heat exhaustion,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
But as the weeks passed, the symptoms didn’t improve and he started having trouble breathing and coughing a lot. This time he thought he had pneumonia based on his research.
“That explains the shortness of breath, not feeling well and not getting better,” says Conway.
On September 23, 2018, he went to the emergency room and was shocked by what he was told.
“They say, ‘You definitely don’t have pneumonia. But your blood pressure is 186 over 120 and your resting heart rate is 120. So you need to go to the ER,’” he says.
When Conway arrived at the emergency room, they immediately took him back. Although pleased that he didn’t have to wait, he realized that something must be seriously wrong.
“I recognized that it’s usually not a good sign if you skip the line,” says Conway.
Doctors did tests, including an echocardiogram, which tells doctors how the heart is working. Conway had an ejection fraction of 10%, while a normal ejection fraction is around 50 to 70%, according to the American Heart Association. That means he was in heart failure.
“I wasn’t feeling very well. Part of the reason was that I was 30 and when I felt down, I thought, ‘Welcome to growing old,’” he says. “I was going into kidney failure, liver failure, like pretty much any type of organ failure that was going on, it was really starting to happen because almost no blood was able to go around and around.”
At first they thought Conway had myocarditis, a bacterial infection of the heart. Then he had a stroke and further tests revealed he had a heart attack in the first week of September and had been walking without treatment ever since.
“I had two more strokes in the next 48 hours,” he says. “What happened was the clots that formed in my heart, because it wasn’t beating efficiently, they started to build up and when I started taking blood thinners, a lot of fluid started to come out, some of these (clots) broke and then it went to the brain.”
For the next 12 days, Conway was in the intensive care unit. Although he knew he was seriously ill, he was still surprised to learn that they had considered putting him on the heart transplant list. He started to slowly improve.
“So I think the widow maker has a 94% fatality rate if you don’t get to the hospital within the first 90 minutes,” says Conway. “I was walking around and still working.”
Heart disease in younger patients
When people think of heart disease, they often think of it as something that happens after a lifetime of unhealthy habits, like being very sedentary, smoking, or having uncontrolled high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Experts say it can occur at any age.
“Only about 53% of adults under age 45 thought they were at risk for heart disease,” said Dr. Laxmi Mehta, director of preventive cardiology and women’s cardiovascular health at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told TODAY.com. “It is the number one killer of men and women. We are all at risk. So we should be concerned about this in prevention, which starts early.”
People under age 45 develop heart disease for the same reasons as older adults, she says. Mehta says risk factors include:
- Family history of heart disease.
- High cholesterol.
- High pressure.
- Cocaine use.
Younger people may not see a primary care doctor or specialist as often as older people, which means that some risk factors may be overlooked.
“When we’re young, our health doesn’t always come first,” says Mehta. “Unfortunately, health sometimes fails.”
While people can control lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet, moving more and quitting smoking, it’s important to be aware of how your health is changing.
“Managing your weight and having good cholesterol control, controlling your blood pressure and controlling your sugar… involves having a doctor,” she says.
If people think they or someone they love is having a heart attack, they need to call 911 right away.
“Call an ambulance. Time is muscle, so the longer it takes to open the blockage, the greater the risk of heart damage,” she says.
From walking 30 seconds to running 5K
When Conway left the ICU, he could barely walk for 30 seconds before needing to take a break. He spent three months in cardiac rehabilitation to improve his strength and skills. He switched to a low sodium diet and knew that exercise would need to be a big part of his life.
“I was walking up a flight of stairs after that first month,” he says. “When they did the next echo, I got to 25% (ejection fraction), which is not great. But it’s still so much better.”
He kept working on his stamina. Soon he could run for 10 to 15 minutes before taking a break. About a year after the heart attack, he ran a 5K.
“That was something I couldn’t do before the heart attack,” he says. “The next echocardiogram they did, it was 35 to 40% (ejection fraction).”
Being at 40% or above meant he wasn’t having heart failure. He just went unnoticed but is happy to accept.
“I like to say I’m in heart summer school right now,” he says. “I’m not failing, but there are still improvements to be made.”
He shares his story so that younger adults realize they too may be at risk for heart disease. Also, he wants them to stop doing their own research when it comes to figuring out their health.
“I was totally against going to the doctor for the sole reason that I didn’t think I needed to go to the doctor,” he says. “If I had gone to the doctor immediately after everything happened, I would have had a better chance of recovering.”
This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: