Last week I received an email from a long time reader who recounted her experiences seeking help following her heart attack (at age 43!). I want to share her story as it speaks to just how poor a job our medical education system is doing in providing physicians with training in lifestyle modification (including diet, fitness, sleep, stress, etc.). The tl;dr version is that despite her incredible willingness and interest in affecting change, none of the physicians she saw were able to provide her with any specific and actionable advice. Clearly if this is the norm, we need not wonder why our patients are turning to quacks for help at times. For my take on the physician’s role in lifestyle, here’s a brief op-ed I wrote for the CMAJ, and as far as this reader goes, I steered her to these 8 big ticket items as her first line priorities. While she wanted to remain anonymous, she did agree to allow me to share her letter
On March 12, 2015, I had a heart attack. I had a heart attack. I had a heart attack. Sometimes I feel like I have to say it again and again because it doesn’t seem real to me. I was 43 years old and what I thought was relatively healthy.
The events of how my day started were mundane. I woke, made coffee, had a shower, poured coffee and sat on my bed to drink my coffee and decide what to wear that day. What began as an uncomfortable feeling in my chest, that I thought would pass, increased in discomfort to a point where I began to feel like I was suffocating. My mind was racing, I wondered if I had any aspirin, I wondered if I should go to the hospital, I wondered if I should call the ambulance. I decided to wake my son and have him drive me to the hospital.
When I arrived at the hospital, my son dropped me off. He had to go home to drive my other kids to school. I walked into the hospital. I believe that arriving at the hospital myself and walking in myself led the people working in triage to believe that whatever was going on with me was not serious. She asked me to have a seat, she asked me to move to a different seat, she called other people in ahead of me. I waited about 20 minutes before being called in to see a doctor. I get it, I probably didn’t fit the ‘profile’.
When I was finally hooked up with an EKG, I believe that they could see the irregularities in my heart rhythm, I was offered two aspirin to chew and they took blood. The blood work confirmed that I was having a heart attack and I was given the antithrombotic injection. By 11:00 I was heading to St. John, NB to have a dye test.
In St. John, I saw plenty of doctors. They set me up with a cardiac catheter that day. During the procedure, the doctor stopped and asked if I was experiencing any stress in my life, that there were no blockages and he didn’t have to complete the procedure because he could see there were no blockages. He asked about stress, because usually there is residue after a blockage is broken down by the antithrombotic and I had no residue.
I left St. John the next day. As I was leaving, I asked if there was anything I needed to know. I was on a battery of medication, but no one talked to me about lifestyle. Whether I should take it easy, whether I should avoid activities, how I should get back into my daily life. I asked and I was told to just do what I could.
I went home without seeing a dietitian. No one spoke to me at all about nutrition, activity, or managing stress. I do have family history, and it seemed that that family history completely defined my experience. No one was curious about why I had a heart attack, because I have family history. Family history was as deep as they looked.
That was 2.5 years ago
I continue to ask….and no one refers me to anyone who can help me with my diet, managing stress, or incorporating activity into my life. I search out this information myself. Always looking for what I should be doing. I see a nutritionist weekly, one that I sought out and pay for out of pocket. I see a trainer at the gym. I google search reputable sites on lowering LDL and improving heart health.
Most recently, I saw my heart doctor. My LDL was higher than it should be. I am not taking medication. I asked if there’s anything he can tell me about my diet or activity…anything at all. I practically begged for a referral, an insight, an idea…..what I got were to handouts. One distributed by Becel and one from the egg Farmers of Canada. I left mad and frustrated.
The next day my family doctor’s nurse called to see if my heart doctor had gone over the results of my blood work. I said that I had seen him and that he “sort of” went over the blood work. I was leaving an opening for her to suggest an appointment to go over my blood work. Her reply was “OK, I was just wondering if you knew”.
The health system has continually left me feeling unimportant and let down through this experience. I am so willing to make the changes I need to but there is no one in the health care system making suggestions.
So I am writing to you, partly to assuage my frustration in being offered healthy diet handouts from Becel and egg farmers by my heart doctor, partly to feel some support, and partly for advise or information or insights.
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