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Coronary Heart Disease: A Cautionary Tale


By Lauren McComber Windspeaker Contributor KAHNAWAKE, Que.







Most people who survive a heart attack change their diets and cut back on strenuous activities; after surgery, they are almost as good as new.

But not Don Patrick Martin, a classically trained musician from the Mohawk First Nation of Kahnawake. After suffering from a heart attack last summer, he can’t do the simple things most of us take for granted.

For instance, he can’t be in the cold for more than two-minutes, as it constricts the blood vessels in his heart, thus causing a heart attack; he can’t walk or do any kind of physical activity for more than five-minutes; and he must also take a combination of several pills three times a day just to function normally.

“I’m like a dog who needs to live on a leash now,” said Martin. “But if I live within this ‘leash’, I will live to my normal life expectancy. If I go outside of my limits, I will need a new heart.”

Martin, who is only 55-years-old, has the heart of a 90-year-old. This is shocking, considering Martin was in top shape before his heart attack: He enjoyed running, participated in biathlons, and ate impeccably. He was even a vegetarian at one point in time.

“It was almost like a shot in the face,” said Martin. “You live this healthy lifestyle, and yet you almost die from a heart attack.”

So why did this happen to him?

Normally what happens to an individual suffering from Martin’s type of heart disease is that one of their coronary arteries will block in the middle, thus allowing doctors to perform coronary artery bypass surgery, which replaces the blocked coronary artery with an artery or vein from another part of the body.

Martin’s coronary artery is instead blocked where it connects to the heart. This is caused by his liver over-producing cholesterol, which in turn made his right coronary artery stick to his heart, hardening to the point of causing a heart attack. The actual heart attack caused a scar to form where his right artery connects to his heart.

“There’s no option for operation,” explains Martin.
“Basically, I’m going to be like this for the rest of my life. I have to live with it.”

Martin’s physical health is largely the reason why his heart condition went unchecked for so long. He may have shown early warning signs of coronary heart disease - he suffered from pain in his neck and had fainting spells - but because his cholesterol tests always came back average, these indicators were overlooked by his family doctor.

What Martin and his doctor failed to inspect was his family history. It turns out that the males on both sides of his family suffer from this particular heart disease: their livers naturally over-produce cholesterol.

If Martin and his family physician had been aware of this, simply prescribing him cholesterol pills could have prevented the life-altering heart attack.
“Dealing with the cycle of emotion of it was the hardest,” admits Martin. “I was angry. Then an instant later, I was sad and depressed; an instant later, I felt shame, and then I was back to being angry. I was like that for six-to-seven months.”

After the heart attack, Martin was sent to a cardiologist in Quebec City. There, he was put under a stress test. Electrodes were stuck to his chest and back while walking on a treadmill to determine if there were any parts of his heart that weren’t getting enough blood.
After the test came back positive, Martin was then recommended to undergo a mini angiography surgery, which consists of a catheter (a thin hollow tube) being stuck into one’s wrist and forced up the arm into the heart. Once at the heart, special ink is injected, then an x-ray is immediately taken. This allows cardiologists to determine exactly where the blockages are in the heart.
Martin underwent three of these mini-surgeries to determine exactly where his heart failed him.

Now, Martin is taking it upon himself to warn his family – and other men across Turtle Island – to be proactive when it comes to heart disease.

“My message is don’t put off the symptoms,” stresses Martin. “I was taught that with a heart attack, you get it in the chest. A lot of men, they wait for the chest pain.”
“But in most cases, there will be no chest pain. [Instead], there will be pain in your jaw, your neck ... there could be pain in your shoulder or back, and there could be fainting spells.”

Martin recommends both men and women to watch what they eat, as the human liver produces 80 per cent of the cholesterol needed for the body to function properly. He also cautions everyone to know his or her family health history; it was a lesson he learned too late.