|September 25, 2003
Volume 34 Number 2
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
High Cholesterol Outmuscles Weight Lifter
Bruce Rowen survives a near-fatal heart attack with the help of friends and family
The heart attack hit registrar Bruce Rowen as a pain extending across his back and under his shoulder blades. It wasn't like any training injury that he'd ever experienced, and, after years of training, there had been many. The pain was severe.
Rowen was at Gold's Gym with his weight-training buddy, Chuck Worth, director of Institutional Research, around 5:30 pm last May 19. They've been going there together, usually at lunchtime, for nearly 25 years.
Worth saw him sweating, pale, and anxious. Rowen told Worth that he was having a massive panic attack about having a heart attack.
"Three days before my heart attack, I was doing sets of back pull-downs with 300 pounds," said Rowen. "Two days before, I did four miles on a StairMaster. One day before, I was squatting 500 pounds and felt great. Fifteen minutes before, I was bench-pressing 350 pounds." Only 54 and a weight lifter who has trained for years, he had no warning.
"Bruce was bent over with substantial back pain," said Worth. "But he was able to stand and his thinking processes were fine -- he left in an organized fashion with keys, wallet, briefcase, and cell phone. As we drove over to the hospital, he was very pale, very anxious, but fully conscious."
The two didn't panic because, in spite of Rowen's anxiety, they didn't believe he was having a heart attack. "It seemed inconceivable, and we didn't realize heart attacks could be expressed as back pain -- that's likely why we didn't panic. We did not know what was happening, but one thing was clear: Bruce was in a lot of pain. Going to the hospital was really a no-brainer," related Worth.
In 20 minutes, Rowen was receiving intravenous medicine and hooked up for an EKG. Worth called Rowen's wife, Linda, and she arrived shortly thereafter.
The cardiologist on duty told him, "You are trying to have a heart attack," and wheeled him into the catheter lab for an angioplasty and stenting.
During the next 45 minutes, Rowen's heart stopped nine times, and he was resuscitated with electric shock each time. His cardiologist said that, in more than 30 years of work, he had seen only three patients survive more than three defibrillations. He credited Rowen's survival to the health and strength developed over years of athletic training. What the cardiologist found, however, was 95 percent occlusion (blockage) in the primary coronary artery.
Rowen said that during the defibrillations, he entered a dreamlike state. The dream images corresponded to what happened to him: he described a multitude of small, white-faced mimes running all over him, and then it felt as if he were being folded in the middle. He woke up screaming, but alive. He credits the exceptional skill of his cardiologist and the skill and compassion of a CSU, Chico nursing graduate for saving his life.
The shocks from defibrillation burned Rowen internally, resulting in chronic and excruciating pain. During the first few days of recovery, the pain was so severe he could only sleep sitting up, resting on a TV tray in front of him. "My wife, Linda, spent two days rubbing my back, taking short breaks, but standing there, hour after hour, helping me," he said.
A few weeks ago, Rowen found out that he has scar tissue in his heart that will prevent him from training as he had been. Acceptance of limitations has not been easy for Rowen. When he was a teenager, weight lifting was the means by which he built his self-esteem and identity. Throughout his life, working out has provided time to think and clear his head, and offered relief when he was stressed and comfort when he was down.
For now, he still goes to the gym, spotting Worth and lifting safe loads. Recently, he and Worth met with the exercise physiology faculty, looking for guidelines on weight lifting in cardiac rehabilitation programs. Most of the information available is for men older than Rowen. He has offered himself as a research subject.
Rowen is from a family with male heart disease. His father has had quadruple bypass surgery and bypass repair surgery. His father's father died in his early 40s from a heart attack, and two uncles died of heart attacks in their 50s.
Twenty-five years ago, Rowen decided to beat that fate and watch what he ate. He hasn't eaten red meat since then. The results of a physical 10 years ago showed his cholesterol was on the normal/low side. The doctor said, "Your heart is strong and healthy."
Because he continued to exercise and carefully manage his diet, and there were no overt signs, Rowen didn't worry about his heart. He used his recovery time from extreme exertion as a measure of his cardio health. His recovery time was excellent. On the day of his attack, his recovery was less than a minute.
Unfortunately, he did not have routine physicals and did not pay attention to his cholesterol level. On the day of his heart attack, his cholesterol was more than 300.
The message: Get regular checkups. Heart disease doesn't always have symptoms until it is almost too late.
You also might drop by the first day of the Promotion of Health Program and hear Rowen speak about his heart attack and the months of healing.
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