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How a Widow-Maker Heart Attack Changed My Life

February is American Heart Month and to support heart health, the LIVESTRONG.COM blog is publishing a series of heart-focused articles to share strategies on how to protect your health.

At the age of 42, I suffered a near-fatal heart attack. A "widow maker," they call the type of attack I experienced, because only 50 percent of patients survive it before they reach a hospital. One of my arteries was abruptly and completely blocked. While it was touch and go for a few days, I survived. But the heart attack had changed me — I realized just how much I wanted to live.

Widow-Maker Heart Attack

As a reporter for a top news station in the nation's capital, I was inherently stressed out. I knew I had unhealthy habits as I tried to balance professional and personal responsibilities. I was a smoker, drinker and fast-food lover. It caught up with me. But after my heart attack, I was more dedicated than ever to change my health habits.

What can you learn from my experience?

1. Ask for help. Just before my heart attack, I had quit smoking and stopped drinking alcohol. But I didn't do either of those things alone. In fact, I went to a rehabilitation center to help me stop drinking alcohol and manage my stress. I also used smoking cessation resources to help me stop smoking, similar to the ones you can find at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Smoking & Tobacco Use website.

2. Listen to your health-care team. My cardiologist was concerned that I was so young to have had a heart attack. We worked together closely to monitor and track my health behaviors and also my cardiac rehabilitation. My team challenged me and supported every small step I made toward recovery. That was really important to me. And when it came time to start exercising again, I kept in close contact with them so they could provide the right support at the right time.

3. Educate yourself. I learned everything I could about heart attacks and strokes. I asked my family about our history of cardiovascular disease. I read articles and listened intently when the nurses and doctors explained things like my blood pressure, pulse, weight and medications. I wrote it down and I studied it, so I knew how to support my own recovery.

 4. Get fit. Exercise is not just for weight loss — it's for your survival. I started getting back into exercising mostly to prove to myself that I could. I started by running on a treadmill and then moved my runs outside. I listened to my body, but I wasn't afraid to push myself. It was a few years later when running had become not just for survival, but also my passion, that I entered the Marine Corps Marathon. With clearance from my doctor, eight years after my heart attack, I ran 26.2 miles. When I crossed the finish line, I knew my heart attack hadn't defeated or defined me.

5. Eat right. What you eat matters, but don't make yourself miserable. During cardiac rehabilitation, I worked with a nutritionist who told me that if I ate mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, broiled fish and chicken and lower-fat foods, I could occasionally enjoy spare ribs at family get-togethers. That was important to me. I couldn't imagine not eating some of my favorite family foods again. So "moderation" and "occasionally" became my mottos when it came to food. In addition, I learned to stop adding salt to my food (there is enough in it already).

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men. African-American men, especially those who live in the Southeast, are at the highest risk for heart disease. In fact, more than 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure, the leading cause of heart attack and death. Controlling high blood pressure is one critical way to reduce the risk of heart attack.

This year, the CDC and Millions Hearts® — a national initiative to prevent one-million heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. by 2017 — are encouraging men to learn about their heart health and the importance of blood pressure control. I am honored to be working with them to continue to share my story, but also to encourage others to find ways to help their hearts.

– Bruce

To show your support, visit the Millions Hearts® website and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Add the Million Hearts® Twibbon to your social media profile and sign up for the Feb. 27 Thunderclap — we need 100 people to join for our heart-health message to be released! Sign up here.

Readers - Have you or anyone you know suffered a heart attack? Have you discussed your risks with your health-care provider? What steps do you take to prevent heart issues? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Bruce Johnson is an Emmy-winning reporter and anchor for WUSA-TV9, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., with an emphasis on politics and urban affairs. He is a heart attack survivor; father; author of the book Heart to Heart and avid runner, biker and swimmer. You can connect with Bruce on Facebook, Twitter and his website.


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