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Swimming Just Saved My Life

Over a million Americans will suffer a heart attack this year. Where are you on the cardiac risk chart?

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Jim Toedtman, swimming saved my life

Swimming and other forms of exercise can greatly reduce your cardiac risk. — Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting

The ER greeting was harsh: "You've had a heart attack." The mobile EKG was the first indicator, elevated troponin levels in the blood tests confirmed it, and a catheterization was scheduled for early the next morning.

Strapped to the gurney, I asked the surgeon if he utilized "The Checklist." In a recent story about reducing hospital errors, we quoted Atul Gawande, M.D., a surgeon and advocate of a checklist — a pre-operation pause for workers in the operating room to introduce themselves one by one and describe their tasks.

It works for aviation and high-rise construction, Gawande argues, so why not in operating rooms? And, I now asked my surgeon, how about my operating room? "We do a time-out," he replied, in which he introduces himself to the team, introduces the patient and describes the scheduled procedure.

Not quite the same, but I was in no position to argue, and we proceeded with the time-out, followed by the left heart catheterization, an examination of the arteries and the left ventricle. He found that plaque had ruptured and clogged an artery, disrupting blood flow to the heart. But just as quickly, blood had clotted, sealing the rupture, and the artery had reopened.

Unexpectedly, my surgeon also found no blocked arteries and no need for stents — a credit to my exercise routine. Damage to the heart was limited and would naturally repair.

In the days since, the message has been even clearer: Exercise at any age is important. From friends, there was joy and good humor. "If I was a heart and someone threw me into the Chesapeake Bay, I'd protest, too," said one. Doctors loaded me with medicine — to control cholesterol, lower blood pressure, stabilize the heartbeat and thin the blood. And the advice they offered was simple — "Get back into the pool."

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