Too Serious To Ignore

Last week marked 4 years since I worked full time as a registered nurse. There are days that I romanticize my time working with patients daily. Mostly on days when the kids aren’t listening and I feel of little importance because my kids keep me humble.

My days at the bedside were fast and furious. For the first 4 years of my career I cared for post cardiac and vascular surgery patients in an intensive care unit (ICU). This floor was not for the timid. However, when I look back at where I was in my life, I was very timid but also very formable.


Patient care for this population went as such: Patients are rushed to the ICU directly from the operating room (OR) immediately after the closure of surgery by a the anesthesiologist and the OR nurses. The patient and “crew” are met by a group of ICU nurses and a respiratory therapist. The patient is still under sedation. The nurses race to unhooked the patient from all traveling equipment, to then set up monitors and IV drips in the room where the patient will stay. The Respiratory Therapist connects the patient to the ventilator. While the anesthesiologist gives report to the nurse who will be taking over recovery care for the patient. Vital signs are being measured and assessed. IV lines are being moved and reorganized. Wounds are being assessed and charted. The patient care coordinator notifies the family that the patient can be visited. About the time the family arrives, the surgeon also comes to check on the patient and to give further orders to the nurse caring for the patient. So much action takes place in this short amount of time! The patient’s nurse will continue to closely monitor blood loss, blood pressure, heart rate and rhythm, respiratory status. If the patient is doing well, sedation is stopped a few hours after surgery. The patient will begin to wake. The patient will be taken off the ventilator support as soon as he is breathing adequately without assistance from the machine. Some patients this happens as early as 4 hours post surgery. The next morning the patient will be out of bed sitting in a chair at the bedside. Education on wound care, rehabilitation, diet and exercise will start at this point. Like I said, not for the timid.

What drew me to this population was the severity of their circumstance and my desire to educate people about health. Especially cardiac health. And these patients are in the prime position to be educated about health. They are at a restart in their lives. The goal to help people live life differently to prevent the progression of their disease.

Coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease are diseases of the vessels within the body. We all are at risk for developing disease of our vessels sometime in our life. Surgeries are performed to regain adequate blood flow throughout the body. Cardiac refers to the heart. Vascular refers to the other vessels carrying blood throughout the body. Blood flow is important to all parts of the body. As disease progresses the body suffers and begins to give clues or hints, aka symptoms that something is not working quite right. People rarely required these surgeries without experiencing some kind of symptom that  warrants further investigation. However, this does happen. The symptoms have a wide range and can be very general. Symptoms from chest pain, shortness of breath to high blood pressure. Even experiencing an increase in anxiety can be a symptom of arterial (vessels) disease.

It is hard to know for sure what is happening when you cannot see what is going on inside your body. And most of us live busy lives. Prior to diagnosis most patients link symptoms to other events in life. “I have been tired recently because I am not sleeping well at night.”

Very general. It would be hard to think something serious is happening in your body based on that one statement. However, a conversation with a healthcare professional continued we may find out that the patient gets very short of breath when walking up the stairs. This is new but again the patient associated this symptom with being tired. The patient also states that their appetite has decreased because he is experiencing increased gastric reflux which has been causing some chest discomfort.

The body is created to work a specific way. However when it is unable to work optimally, the body compensates to continue functioning as well as possible for as long as possible. Our bodies were created to survive. This compensation works great, until it doesn’t.

Food and exercise are so important to the overall physical well-being of our bodies. Food effects the way our bodies function. Eating high sugar diets, which most of us do, directly effects the inflammation and elasticity of the blood vessel walls. When blood vessels are inflamed the natural process of the vessel dilating and constricting is hindered.  This increases the risk for occlusion of the blood vessel by growth of plaque which is related to eating a diet high in saturated and trans-saturated fats. Eating diets high in saturated and trans-saturated fats also cause inflammation in the vessels and creates circumstances that cause fats to stick together along the walls of the vessels creating narrowing and/or occlusion of the vessel.

Food is a large component to the progression of coronary and vascular disease. Food is also an emotional component for people. I believe this is because people, in general, are very confused on what is “good vs bad” food. There is a large number of opinions in regards to what is recommended to eat.

Also, food is tied life! I have had so many patients angry or sad when I began discussing changing their food habits. Eating is a comfort and a joy. Eating is a constant for most of us in this very non-constant world. Food is often enjoyed with family and in community.

Food can still be all of those things. However, the food that is chosen to share can be different. Do not make this a solo mission. Invite people in this journey of change with you. I believe the mindset of we is so much stronger than the mindset of I.

Eating a healthy, clean diet benefits everyone, not just the person who has been diagnosed at this time.

My biggest piece of advise for shopping for healthy food is to stick to the parameter of the grocery store. But please proceed with caution once you get to the processed meats and cheese section. An added benefit you may notice is savings on your grocery bill by staying out of the aisle.

Exercise is another element that will help in the reversal or progression of disease. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days out of the week. Walking is an example of a moderate exercise but not being able to carry-on a conversation.

The heart is a muscle. Exercise helps strengthen it along with all of the other muscles in the body. Exercise also boosts mood and decreases stress. Call a friend or a couple of friends to walk around the neighborhood or for a pick up basketball game. Whatever sounds fun and do-able for you!

You may not be experiencing symptoms of cardiac or vascular disease but changing your lifestyle to be one of health will have positive effects in all areas including prevent or progression of disease.

So why don’t people make these changes in their lives?

Based on my experience I believe most people are afraid. Fear of change, fear of failure, and ultimately the fear of death. Staring your morality in the face is scary. It is easier to ignore or explain away. Although I have not experienced arterial disease, I do have an intermittent fast heart rate. I was a teen when this first started; I thought for sure I was going to die. Saying the words that something was seriously wrong out loud was almost too terrifying to say! I kept it a secret from my parents for a while before I finally was brave enough to say something.

This is too serious to ignore. I encourage you to not be like me, February is National Heart Month, if you are experiencing unusual body functioning, aka symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. If you are not experiencing symptoms, I encourage you to try a month of healthy eating and exercising as a way to honor all those who have or are suffering from cardiac and/or vascular disease. I am asking you do this through then end of February. Tell your friends and family about what you are doing and why. Leave a comment if you are up for the challenge.


*Be sure to check with your doctor before starting new diets or exercise programs.



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