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Recognizing the Signs. The Art of Saving Your Own Life.

marie catherine bruno owner of the sole mate

Written by Marie-Catherine Bruno, BScPT, Cped(C).

It was not even 4 weeks ago that I was wondering what I could write about next, feeling like I had exhausted almost all of the running injuries, or at least the ones I felt like writing about! I was looking for a new subject. I never thought it would come and hit me like a ton of bricks… but it did, so here is my story.

My boyfriend and I are avid cross-country skiers and racers. On February 12th my boyfriend’s (we will call him Mike for this story) work took him to Edmonton, Alberta. What a great excuse to participate in the Canadian Birkebeiner (a 55km classic technique race). On that same weekend I was away doing a local race, so as usual we talked after our races, but on the phone this time. I was pretty excited about my race and was eager to find out about his. The news were unfortunately not so good though: he thought he had blown his shoulder during the race. He was in so much pain he could barely breathe, let alone move around. The pain started at kilometer 30 with 25 more to go. He thought that maybe since there was so much double-poling in the race he had torn something in his shoulder. The pain was so intense it was radiating into his back and chest as well. But he continued and even finished. He still managed a finish in the top 20 in a race of over 2000 participants, but he was disappointed he had been beaten by a woman, a very rare occurrence for him!

As we kept talking, I could feel something was wrong, very wrong. He had managed to drive himself back to his hotel, but the pain was just making him ill. I started asking more questions. His pain was on the left side, a bit of chest but mainly shoulder and back. Movement was not making it worse, and there was absolutely no resting position in which he had no pain, or at least a bit less. His stomach was a bit upset, but nothing unusual after such a tough race. I feared the worse: a heart attack. But how on earth does a healthy and super-fit 32 year-old get a heart attack? I thought I was probably going loony, but still wanted to make sure my feelings were wrong. Just in case I was not, I suggested he went to the hospital to get himself checked. Not wanting to make his blood pressure skyrocket, I avoided mentioning the heart attack and told him instead that maybe his spleen was suffering a lot from the race and was about to explode, common side effect of racing very hard, but with serious consequences (yes, I made it up. I had no idea what I was talking about, but I had to make it sound scary enough so he would get himself to the hospital, without scaring him with the idea of a heart attack!). It worked, and he went.

At the hospital, he described his symptoms. They looked at him fairly quickly, checked his blood pressure and sent him back to his hotel with pain killers. He reported back to me, and when he told me the doctor he saw had been a physiotherapist before, I was reassured; any physiotherapist would know that you don’t blow a shoulder without getting mechanical signs (increasing pain with movement). So I must had been too much of a drama queen, his heart was fine, I could rest.

The next day he drove home, a 10-hour drive. When he finally made it home, he slept for the next 14 hours. What a race it must have been I thought. He got up fine the next day with no shoulder pain. The following day he even went for a ski, and like any good racer, tested his shoulder with some interval training! The pain was still there, so he decided to take it easy (I now thank heaven… you will find out why later).

Day 3 Mike drove to Vancouver for a ski show where he would present next year’s skis to dealers and potential clients. Day 4 he was presenting to a dealer from Vancouver Island. In the middle of his presentation, half of his face suddenly dropped. He sounded like he was drunk. The dealer did not know what to make of this, so just assumed he had had one too many! Luckily another representative of the company saw what was happening and figured there was something wrong. He sat him down and told him someone was going to finish the presentation for him. Mike had no clue why, feeling fine other than the fact that he could not spit out the name of the ski he was presenting about! Luckily, another representative quickly recognized the signs of a stroke and phoned emergency services. Within a few minutes, the ambulance was rushing him to the nearest hospital where he underwent a 3-hour brain surgery to remove blood clots. It is only then that we found out that indeed, there had been a heart attack. One artery that feeds the heart had spontaneously ripped and started bleeding during the ski race (a spontaneous dissection they call it), causing that section of the heart to stop working – in other words, a heart attack. Eventually the bleeding coagulated, creating blood clots. Some of them moved up to the brain and caused the stroke.

Had he been diagnosed in the first place with the heart attack, he would have never had a stroke. He is now almost completely out of danger and all hopes are permitted that he will recover completely.

So, the reason why I am telling you my story? Here they are:

  • 1. Never ignore left shoulder pain (or chest or even back), especially when there is no reason that your shoulder should suddenly hurt. If you are exercising and you think you may have pulled something, move your shoulder around. If movement is not making it worse, assume that there is no reason for that pain to be there. RECOGNIZE the signs and be smart about it. Don’t tell yourself that it cannot be a heart attack, because it CAN be one. Alert someone right away and let them know you think you may be having a heart attack. Your first ticket to staying alive is to acknowledge calmly that you may be having a heart attack. Ignoring the pain and continuing to exercise will not help you.
  • 2. Call emergency services or get yourself to the nearest hospital, presto. Let them know you think you may be having a heart attack, because if you look fit, they may not even suspect it, especially if you are young. And if they don’t assess you thoroughly, you may be sent home with pain killers. Pain killers don’t do much for a heart attack.
  • 3. Take a course from your nearest Heart and Stroke Foundation. Learn how to recognize signs of a stroke because most people don’t realize they are having a stroke. Learn how to ressucitate someone. You could save the life of someone you love, or at least of someone that is loved. We have already lost too many fellow orienteers to a heart attack.
  • 4. Stay fit. The extra capillaries that you develop during low intensity training can save your life. When the artery tore in Mike’s heart, there was still enough circulation from the extra blood vessels to keep him alive. When the blood clots blocked arteries in his brain, there were again enough extra capillaries to keep the brain fed and limit the damage. Had he been not fit, I would already be a widow at 32.
  • 5. Learn to enjoy everyday that you are alive and kicking. Your life can change way too quickly, trust me on that one.

At the time of press, Mike still had a massive blood clot in his heart, restricting him from any physical activity, including walking. All hopes are still that he will fully recover.