Fit for Life: Why We Work Out

A retired former SWAT officer’s continued stringent exercise regimen saved his life.

Honestly, I thought it was just a bad chest cold.

I started that morning with a visit to the doctor’s office, fully expecting to walk out with a prescription for some knockout medicine and get on with life. Instead, the next few hours turned into a whirlwind of frenetic activity by an assortment of medical personnel, with me ending up in an Intensive Care Unit 90 miles from home. But let me back up and fill in some of the details.

Something’s Wrong

I was finally at home after spending three weeks on the road. The last week or so, I had developed a nagging dry cough. Naturally, my first thought was I was coming down with something. After all, my wife Julie had just gotten over a cold a few weeks before that. She was the one who noticed the next oddity: My heart was trying to pound its way out of my chest. My resting heartbeat was noticeably harder and faster than normal. I jokingly told her it was because I was excited to be home. I wasn’t worried because even though I’m no longer on SWAT or in law enforcement, I’ve made an effort to maintain a high level of physical fitness. 

But over the next two days, other more worrisome things started to happen. The cough was getting worse, and several times I found myself breathless and lightheaded when I stopped. The simplest of physical tasks, like walking to the mailbox, also left me struggling to catch my breath. Last, but certainly not least, my right calf had swollen to nearly twice its normal size. With all of this, it was time to go to the doctor.

We were fortunate enough to find a doctor who could get me in within two days. When we met the doctor that morning, we still believed it was going to be something simple. However, the expression on the doctor’s face was less than comforting. Right there, he made a phone call to a colleague-a specialist-and we listened as he told him I needed to be seen right away.

Medical Mystery Tour

Our next stop was the office of that cardiologist. He conducted an EKG, checked my leg, asked a few questions, and then started scribbling frantically on some official-looking form. Finally, he gave me the news.

He believed I had a blood clot in my leg, and it appeared that it may be breaking up and sending additional clots into my lungs. The only way to know for sure was with the additional tests he was ordering, to be done immediately in the emergency room. Off we went to the next stop on the Medical Mystery Tour.

I walked into the emergency room about 15 minutes later. I handed the nice lady at the desk the paperwork I’d been given. Next thing I know, I’m being assisted into a wheelchair and hustled down a hallway to the heart of the ER. Quickly I was transformed into a patient: gown, gurney, oxygen and monitors, tests and more tests, all in rapid succession. Then lots of questions: Are you having chest pain? Have you been coughing up blood? Do you need oxygen? No, no, and no.

The Diagnosis

Finally, the diagnosis from a grim-faced resident came. I had a major blood clot behind my right knee, most likely a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). It definitely was sending multiple pieces through my heart and into both lungs, where they were lodging in the smaller blood vessels. As a result, my lung capacity had been cut to 25 percent of normal.

In a separate but medically unrelated attempt on my life, the pericardial sac around my heart was filling with excess fluid. Being crowded by the fluid, my heart could not beat properly. To compensate, it was beating harder and faster than normal. In fact, my resting pulse was over 110 beats per minute. I had been effectively running a marathon for days.

This information was the final confirmation the medical staff needed to go into crisis mode. My wife and I had lots of questions, but no one wanted to give us clear answers, always telling us to talk to someone else.

I was told I was in dire straits, and despite my protests I was going to be transported to another hospital, one that was specially equipped for this type of case. They felt that if (or perhaps when) something catastrophic happened overnight, their hospital didn’t have the staff to properly deal with it. So, my journey continued, as I was packed up for an ambulance trip across the state. I kissed Julie goodnight, and off we went.

Not Supposed to Be Alive

Ninety minutes later, I was in another emergency room, with more medical staff buzzing around me. More monitors, more tubes, and more looks of grave concern. My journey that night ended with me in the Intensive Care Unit, complete with a personal nursing staff. As things settled down, I was finally able to get a senior nurse to sit and talk with me about what was going on, and why everyone had been so frantic to this point.

She gravely told me that I was not supposed to be alive. With my condition, I should have been coughing up blood, in considerable pain, and my blood pressure should have been crashing. My heart should have given out from the added stress.

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