Voices: Strohmaier’s close call with blocked artery and a change of perspective

Dave Strohmaier

They call it the widow maker. It’s also called the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, and one year ago mine was almost completely blocked. Had my occlusion been total, I’d likely not be penning these words today, which explains the artery’s nickname.

The cautionary tale is that I didn’t see it coming. I have no family history of coronary artery disease. My annual physical exams and periodic health screenings didn’t pick up any red flags of high cholesterol or high blood pressure. And I’m fairly active.

I noticed my first symptoms while on spring break with my family last year in Winifred. One morning, I experienced an odd sensation of shortness of breath as I was pedaling on a stationary bike in our hotel’s fitness center, but I just chalked it up to spending too much time at my desk.

A couple weeks later, I experienced the same symptoms along with mild tightness in my chest while turkey hunting with my son, who was kicking my butt while traversing gently rolling terrain through open stands of Ponderosa pine. Again, I attributed it to too much sedentary activity combined with trying to keep up with a teenage boy, all of which inspired me to power through the hunt and redouble my commitment to work out at the gym more often.

Over the next few days, I experienced the same symptoms with ever slighter exertion. I felt fine when sitting, but even walking the quarter mile to my office on flat ground triggered the same sensations. I made an appointment to see my primary care physician, but never had a chance to see him.

The day I went to the hospital began like most. After arriving at the office, I walked two blocks to a downtown coffee shop. On this day, the symptoms flared up after traversing only a hundred yards or so, and on my return trip my left arm cramped up, though not acute enough to make me think that it was anything beyond a pulled muscle — all standard rationalizations of a middle-aged man who considered himself in relatively decent physical health. And nothing in my experience resembled the dramatic heart attack scenes in movies and CPR training videos.

I foolishly sat through a joint city council-county commissioner meeting, feeling fine while seated. After the meeting, my wife took me to the emergency room. Following blood tests that detected cardiac enzymes and a trip to the cath lab, doctors discovered that my LAD was between 95 and 99 percent blocked, necessitating the insertion of two stents.

All of this impressed upon me the importance of listening to our bodies even when they speak in subtle and muted tones. Better safe than sorry is a cliché that absolutely rings true for me today. Modern medicine is an amazing thing, and I’m grateful for the world-class medical professionals in Missoula. But those professionals can only make a difference when we swallow our pride and seek help.

Most importantly, I’ve been reminded that life is short and a precious gift that is easily taken for granted. Every breath we take could be our last. Are those breaths directed toward nurturing a sense of kindness and love and wonder or wasted on bitterness, self-absorption, and expecting the worst from others? I’m working on the former.

Although snow drifts remain deep in western Montana, they’re beginning to recede. As they do, I look forward to hearing the gobbles of spring Toms as the first morning rays light up Ch-paa-qn Peak on an April morning.

David Strohmaier,

Missoula County Commissioner