Alan is something of a miracle man. At the age of 32, he had a massive heart attack. But more than 40 years, 4 bypass surgeries, 30 angioplasties, and a combined pacemaker/defibrillator later, he's still thriving. He learned how to cope with heart disease the hard way.
Alan had always been healthy and athletic. Except for the occasional cold, he was never sick. So the heart attack came as a shock.
But he was a smoker. And when he had his first bypass surgery a few years later, Alan learned that he was born with very small heart arteries. The combination proved too much for his heart to take.
"At some point in my life, I was going to have a heart attack. Smoking just sped it up," says Alan, 73. "It happened while I was playing basketball with some guys from work. I started getting pains in my chest. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor."
Lessons learned about heart disease
After the heart attack, Alan quit smoking immediately. He didn't have much choice. At that time, treatment for a heart attack was total bed rest for 3 weeks.
"That's how they thought the heart would heal in those days—with complete rest, no excitement. Now we know that if you can get up, get up. You have to move around at least a little."
During those weeks in the hospital and the months of recovery that followed, Alan taught himself a lot about heart disease. He read everything on the topic that he could find.
"I learned how to take care of myself. Those lessons have stayed with me."
One of those lessons is the importance of a healthy diet. But putting what he knows into daily practice is an ongoing challenge. Alan leans on his wife, Cloris, for help.
"I've had to work at keeping my weight under control, and that has really helped my cholesterol," he says. "When you have heart disease, you learn to eat better for the rest of your life. And if you don't, you're asking for trouble."
Alan no longer drinks alcohol or eats red meat. His daily meals include fruit and vegetables. Fish is often on the menu at home. The portions are a little smaller than what he'd like. Since his diagnosis of type 2 diabetes a few years ago, he's also had to limit sweets.
"That's a tough one," he says.
Making these changes hasn't prevented the need for major surgeries and other procedures. But they have helped Alan stay active and enjoy life. "Heart care isn't a one-time fix. Exercise, eating, and medical care all have to work together," he says.
Support groups make a difference
As a lifelong athlete, Alan didn't need much coaching to add more exercise to his daily routine. For more than 30 years, he's been an enthusiastic member of a local walking program for people with heart problems.
"It's so easy for cardiac patients to put weight on," Alan says. "And it's so hard to get it off. You need to walk every day or the weight comes right back."
Alan credits Cloris with giving him the help he needs to stay focused on taking care of his heart. But he also relies on a network of friends and support groups. The two belong to the cardiac support group at their local hospital. Alan is also a member of the Ticker Kickers, a group of people who have pacemakers or implantable cardiac defibrillators.
"I couldn't do any of it without my support groups," he says. "The camaraderie of being together and working out together makes such a big difference. We take care of each other."
When newcomers join, Alan and other longtime members of the group share what they know. "We ask them about what they're going through, what medicines they're taking. And we share information about how to get along. It's great for them and for us."
Getting the care you need
After 4 bypass surgeries and 30 angioplasties, Alan has lots of tips about how to work with doctors. He and Cloris track every aspect of his medical care. They keep a printed sheet in the car and bring a copy to every doctor visit. The sheet contains a list of every procedure performed and when, medicines he has taken, names of doctors, and drug allergies.
If you plan to have bypass surgery, ask for the most experienced surgeon, Alan advises. He also tells people to make the most of their office visits and ask a lot of questions.
"We bring a list of questions to every doctor visit," Cloris says. "You can't always remember everything you want to know."
Coping with change after a heart attack
Life wasn't easy after the heart attack. Unable to return to work, Alan sank into depression. Cloris, up until then a full-time homemaker, found a job to support the family, which included two young children.
"That was the most difficult adjustment for Alan," Cloris says. "All of a sudden I was thrown into the workforce, and we didn't have any choice."
"Psychologically, it was tough," Alan says. "But we got used to it. And we kept going."
Working with a counselor or chaplain can be a huge help for people with heart problems and for their families. What is often overlooked in cardiac care is the impact a major heart event can have on the person's family and loved ones.
"When you have a heart attack, you know you have to change your lifestyle," Cloris says. "There's depression. But with all the new medicines and surgeries and procedures, you have to remember that there is so much to hope for."
Keep a positive attitude
Even though Alan stopped working, he has never stopped learning—or helping others learn—about how to cope with heart disease. What has kept him going all these years? A positive attitude.
"You've got to have a sense of humor. Don't take life so seriously," he says.
Staying positive and finding the humor in any situation is a message Alan shares with everyone he talks with about heart disease. He is well known around the local hospital, where he often visits with people scheduled for heart surgery.
At one such visit, a man asked him about the pain after bypass surgery. How bad would it be? How long would it last? "I told him, 'It only hurts when you breathe.' He just looked at me for a minute. And then we both started laughing, and we couldn't stop," Alan says. "Sometimes it just takes someone who can say, 'been there, done that.' A nurse or doctor can tell you what to expect, but they haven't been there."
Alan's story reflects his experiences as told in an interview. The photograph is not of Alan, to protect his privacy.