Forty-three-year-old Dan Wolpert was a couch potato who had a family history of heart attacks. Yet, when he experienced heart attack-type symptoms in 2008, he didn’t think it could be happening to him. Still, he knew something was wrong, so he drove himself to the hospital and made it to the emergency room door before collapsing.
Dan was in a coma for four days and narrowly escaped a heart transplant. These days, he takes his health to heart, eating a nutritional diet and exercising regularly. Dan wants to help others like him realize that it can happen to them and that they have the power to prevent it.
1. What was your reaction when you learned you had suffered a heart attack?
I remember the moment when I woke up in the ICU very clearly. My mother was there by my bedside. She said, “Dan, you’re in the hospital. You’ve had a heart attack.” I couldn’t respond because I was still intubated, but I nodded. I’d thought so. The last thing I remembered prior to that moment was driving myself to the hospital. As I’d gotten close and my symptoms had become more severe, I’d realized that I was most likely having a heart attack.
2. You were in the ICU for 11 days. What thoughts went through your mind during that time?
I thought about a lot of things. Some thoughts that stand out are:
“Why did I let myself get this bad without doing anything about it?”
I’d never had serious health issues before the heart attack, so I never made health a priority. I was guilty of the “it could never happen to me” mentality. In fact, even when I began feeling the symptoms and made the decision to drive myself to the hospital, I was still in denial.
“What’s going to motivate me to get through my recovery and stay healthy?”
I thought about missing out on watching my nieces grow up. I thought about the activities I wanted to get back into, like racing my car and skiing. I thought about all my friends and family that I didn’t want to lose, and all those life experiences that I hadn’t had yet.
“How can I make this recovery as complete and successful as possible?”
One of the first doctors who came to see me after I woke up introduced himself as the head of the transplant team. That was one of the scariest moments of my life. Fortunately, he was there to report that, while they had been considering me for a heart transplant when I was still in a coma, they had determined that I was doing well enough not to need one.
He also told me that the single greatest influence on a successful recovery is a positive attitude. At the time, I questioned how I possibly could have a positive attitude. But over the next few days, I thought about the motivations for my recovery. I turned my attitude around completely and saw measurable improvements in my condition. Originally, I had felt fear and doubt about my future, but I found a deep-seated motivation to maximize my recovery by looking forward to it.
3. If you could give health advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Focus some of your attention on taking care of yourself. Recognize that being healthy is a lot more enjoyable than being unhealthy. You can be so much healthier just by making good decisions about what you eat and how you spend your leisure time.
4. What lifestyle changes have you made to your diet and exercise?
Prior to my heart attack, I paid no attention to my diet. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I ate out literally all the time. Now, I cook for myself a lot. I limit the amount of sodium (less than 2000 mg/day) and saturated fat (less than 15 g/day) that I eat and make sure that I get enough protein and fiber. To do that, I check the nutrition labels on everything I buy. When eating prepared food, I ask questions so I can make informed decisions. I also take some vitamin supplements to make sure I’m getting all the nutrition I need.
Before my heart attack, I was the stereotypical couch potato. I never got any exercise. After the heart attack, I focused on increasing my exercise in very small increments, every day. Over time, it adds up. Now, I make sure that I maintain an exercise routine and continue to enjoy an active lifestyle.
5. How has your diagnosis affected your outlook on your overall health and your future?
Surviving the heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me. My outlook on life is so much more positive now because I’m so grateful to be living it. I don’t think about my current condition of congestive heart failure with dread. I look at it with pride, because I’m beating it and living the life I want.
6. What misconceptions do you think people have about their heart health?
If you’ve never had a serious problem like a heart attack, it’s natural to believe that your cardiac health is 100 percent. However, ignoring or misunderstanding heart health can lead to serious or fatal problems. Too many people experience the symptoms that I did and think that it will go away or that they’ll deal with it later. Then they suffer that fatal heart attack and it’s too late. Don’t ignore symptoms. Always err on the side of caution with your health.
7. What kind of advice would you give people with a family history of heart disease?
Put yourself in the shoes of someone you know who didn’t survive their heart attack. Then ask yourself if you should do something about it. Accepting what that risk means makes deciding to do something about it easy.