"I think I'm having anxiety," Leonard Castro told his wife on a day back in September.
Some time in the days running up to Sept. 9, multiple factors that made 46-year-old Leonard Castro a prime candidate for a heart attack converged. His body was groaning: Blood pressure too high. Too much bad cholesterol. Too much sugar in the blood. Too much weight.
Over the years, the walls in the arteries of his heart had narrowed and stiffened with plaque. The cells in those arteries became inflamed, a medical term perfectly derived from the Latin word "inflammare": to set on fire.
Small clots of blood began to plug the arteries. Each time the flow of blood faltered, even for a few seconds, muscle cells died of lack of oxygen.
That was what was happening inside one man's chest. Simultaneously, lives were upended. A spouse began imaging herself a widow. A father feared he would outlive his son.
A middle-aged man wondered: How could this happen to me?
Someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds in the United States. For 785,000 people, it's a first heart attack. For 470,000, it's a second or perhaps third attack. Fewer people than ever suffer that "big, bad heart attack" that kills them or ruins their health, says Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the preventive and rehabilitative cardiac center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "If you can get to the hospital, the death rate is very low now." More than 90% of heart attack patients who reach the hospital survive, according to a recent study.
And most people who survive heart attacks today are expected to fully recover. But that is not to say their lives don't change dramatically. They have to.
One minute Castro, an auto parts salesman, was a weekend golfer who changed the oil in his car, mowed his own lawn and trimmed the ivy.
The next minute, he was on disability, could barely walk across his house and needed help using the bathroom.
Hilda asked neighbors to keep an eye out so he didn't do anything stupid and strenuous, like start the lawnmower.
That is a heart attack for those who survive.
"I felt like a dead fish in the water," he said of those first weeks at home with a healing chest. "I couldn't bend down. I couldn't put pressure on the chest. When we brought groceries home, Hilda would bring in the bags. I would carry a loaf of bread or the eggs."
The Castros were hosting relatives for Labor Day weekend when it happened. On Saturday, Leonard and Hilda's cousin played golf. He joined a raucous game of volleyball in the pool. He manned the grill, flipping burgers and steaks.
On Sunday, they went to a swap meet. Leonard says that, while standing by the entrance gate, "I kind of lost my breath. It felt like a smog day, when it hurts when you breathe."
Leonard waved off Hilda's concern.
A heart attack? No way. But, in fact, he had been warned about such a day. Over the years, he had developed into a walking checklist of cardiac risk factors. He was 5 feet, 11 inches and weighed 318 pounds. He took blood pressure medication and had total cholesterol of about 250 — too high. His father had heart disease. Five years ago, Leonard was diagnosed with diabetes.
"Every time I'd see my doctors, they'd say, 'You need to lose weight. You're at risk for heart disease. We don't want you to have a heart attack,' " Leonard recalled. "I'd tell myself, I won't get to that point."
He would come home from the doctor and watch what he ate: skinless chicken breasts and salads instead of the pasta he loved. But never for more than a few days.
Over the next few days, Leonard had more bouts of shortness of breath, usually in the evening. Hilda, his wife of 18 years, insisted on calling the doctor Wednesday night. The doctor told him to go to the nearest emergency room. Leonard wouldn't go. It was anxiety, he insisted. Or maybe his new diabetes medication wasn't agreeing with him.
The next day, when Hilda found him lethargic, sweating and pale — still insisting he was OK — she erupted. "We call 911 or I'll drive you to the emergency room," she ordered.
Within the hour, an emergency room doctor told Leonard that he had had a heart attack.
Leonard's 81-year-old father burst into tears when he saw his son hooked to an electrocardiogram machine. "This shouldn't be happening to you," he cried.
Leonard was transferred to St. Joseph Hospital in Orange and two days later underwent a quintuple bypass surgery to re-establish blood flow in five completely or partially blocked blood vessels.
Family and friends filled three waiting rooms. Hilda asked them to be strong in front of Leonard. No tears.
He cried once, lying on the gurney just before surgery. He was afraid he would not survive. Hilda cried too. "I was crying because he had to go through this."