What major changes did you make after your heart attack?

My number one lifestyle change is my diet. I have not eaten a hamburger or steak or any red meat since my heart attack. I try to do a very low fat diet, limited fried foods, more vegetables, salads, and grilled food. I don’t add salt on anything. I don’t drink sodas, no regular coffee. I used to have a couple of cokes a day before this happened. I drink a lot more water now.

And what about exercise?

In my 20s I was an avid exerciser, but I stopped once I started working full time. I kept telling myself that I was going to get back to a routine. After the surgery, I did the 10-week cardiac rehabilitation that the hospital offered. Since that point, I have become an avid walker, walking at least 5 days a week, 3-4 miles a day, whether it is in the neighborhood or on the treadmill.

How was cardiac rehab?

I found rehab very helpful. It actually gets you going with healthy habits. Plus, they monitor you. After a heart attack and surgery, you don’t know how you will react to exercise and how hard you can go at it. Now I don’t worry about that at all. For the first couple of years, I wore a heart rate monitor whenever I walked to check my heart rate and make sure I was in my training zone. Now, I only check my heart rate when I am on a treadmill. When I walk outside I don’t wear my heart rate monitor because I know how my body feels and when I need to push myself a bit. 

How did your heart attack affect your family?

I am single, and if I didn’t have family, it would have been real tough. I couldn’t have done it by myself. They became my caregivers. Luckily I have cousins that live close by. They took me into their home and let me heal there for 4 to 6 weeks after the surgery. Also, my sister is a nurse at Duke Hospital and made sure that I got into an exercise routine and that I stuck with a low fat diet. The family support was huge, and they were all real supportive. Everybody was there to help.

Did you have to make other lifestyle changes?

Before my heart attack, it was always “go, go, go” for me. I felt like my job was consuming me. I’ve tried to become better at time management so that I have more time for myself. I used to work longer hours. I think I am still as productive as I was before my attack, only now I am more focused and can do my job in a better way. I used to never take time for breakfast. I would grab a cup of coffee; maybe eat something on the go, and head to work. Now I take time, I get up a little earlier, eat breakfast, and relax before I start my workday. Taking time for myself sets the tone for the day.

What is the best advice you were given after your attack? 

Find a doctor who you trust and who will listen to you. I was 46 and single and didn’t have a doctor. I quickly found a doctor recommended by a cousin of mine who is also a doctor. He has been great.

Another piece of advice: It is important to recognize when something is feeling different in your body. Get medical help as soon as possible; don’t wait like I did.