Opinion | My Life After a Heart Attack at 38

By Trymaine Lee

In an instant, I didn’t know if I’d get to see my daughter turn 6.

By Trymaine Lee

Mr. Lee is a correspondent for MSNBC.

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CreditCreditIllustrations by Eiko Ojala

The rows of headstones crashed into each other like waves cresting, covering nearly every inch of the cemetery green in Queens as we zoomed past it at 60 miles an hour.

I drove. My wife sat next to me. Our 5-year-old daughter was in the back seat, her face scrunched up against the window, watching the world go by.

“When I die, don’t bury me in a place like that,” I said to my wife.

She didn’t so much as lift an eyelash.

So I said it louder, and with more bass.

“Please, don’t,” she said, her voice quivering.

“I’m serious. Don’t bury me in a place like that,” I said. “Send me back home. Bury me in Jersey.”

My wife stared ahead.

“Did you hear me? You got to send me to Jersey. Don’t have me out there with all of them.”

As I fussed about where I wanted my not-yet-dead body buried, she put her face in her hands.

“Please,” she pleaded. “Just stop.”

But I couldn’t stop. For more than a month I’d been obsessing over when death would come for me. I thought about what might be etched in my gravestone: Husband. Father. Journalist. I tried to sleep, and all I could think about were the class trips and science experiments and birthday parties that I’d miss if I were gone.

On July 13, 2017, at the age of 38, death came banging on my chest in the form of a major heart attack. Specifically, a type of heart blockage that kills its victims so often that it has its own nickname: widow-maker.

It shook me awake in the early hours and felt as if someone had jammed a beach ball into my chest, pumped it to the verge of exploding and then pumped it some more.

I was a mostly healthy former high school and college athlete. I don’t smoke or have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or a family history of heart disease or early death. Yearly checkups with my doctor never included any mention of heart disease. So I never considered worrying.

Yet there I was, doubled over in bed, nauseated, dizzy and drenched in sweat. I can still see the panicked look on my wife’s face, her eyes wide and wet as she paced the hallway, the phone in her hand quaking.

“You hit the lottery,” one of the cardiologists who saved my life told me. The worst kind of lottery. Despite my relative good health, some plaque had broken off in my left anterior descending artery and a blood clot filled its space, leaving that major coronary artery nearly 100 percent blocked.

I hadn’t thought much about how the human heart worked before that. But now I could picture the long snaking line down the left side of the model heart I’d stared at in high school biology class — my problem artery — and could imagine it clogged.

I had been feeling chest pressure for a couple of days, and in those days the clot grew, and hour by hour that clogged artery began choking my heart of blood and oxygen until I had a heart attack. Just a day and a half earlier I had felt enough chest pressure and dizziness to visit a clinic.

The practitioner there did an electrocardiogram and said the left side of my heart was slightly enlarged, but my discomfort was probably just gas. Don’t worry, I was told: “Your heart’s not just going to stop. You’re not going to drop dead tomorrow.” But that’s what almost happened.

About 36 hours later, Dr. George Fernaine, chief of cardiology at New York University’s Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, was threading a catheter through an artery in my wrist to my heart and inflating a tiny balloon at the end of it to secure two stents in my heart to clear the clot that nearly killed me.

Dr. Fernaine said that had I not made it to the hospital when I did, I probably wouldn’t have survived. In that moment, as I was strapped down in the cath lab, a wide smile spread across my face. I felt a kind of joy that I’d experienced only a few times before.

About half of people who die of a heart attack do so in the first hour. If not properly treated within that “golden hour,” heart muscle begins to die. Within six hours, if the heart attack hasn’t yet been fatal, victims face the possibility of irreversible damage. I didn’t get to the hospital until more than six hours after I felt the most acute pain. Despite my obvious signs of distress, I hesitated to go for help because it seemed inconvenient: My wife was scheduled to go on a work trip that morning, and my daughter had summer camp. It hadn’t fully clicked that what I was experiencing was an actual heart attack.

In an instant I joined the group of about 805,000 Americans who suffer a heart attack each year (one every 40 seconds), including 605,000 who are struck for the first time. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America, responsible for one in four deaths.

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Those statistics are even worse for African-Americans, who suffer higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure, key contributors to heart disease. And though long considered an “old man’s disease,” some recent research suggests that while rates of heart attacks have declined in recent decades, the numbers are up for younger people. One study found that of more than 28,000 patients hospitalized for heart attacks from 1995 to 2014, 30 percent were between ages 35 and 54, and there was a five percentage point increase over that period in the number of younger heart attack victims.

Like other survivors of near-death experiences, some heart attack victims will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Some will fall into anxiety and depression. They’ll wonder, “Why me?” Others will become hypervigilant, waiting for another heart attack to strike. I found myself replaying the terrifying moments of my heart attack, trapped in a cycle of fear and resignation — fear of dying and resignation that it was probably going to happen sooner rather than later.

I now recognize those worries and that constant mulling of death as trauma, trauma not unlike the kind suffered by people who’ve been victims or witnesses of violence. I’ve spent the better part of my career as a journalist chronicling and examining that sort of trauma. And through that reporting, I recognize a common thread of fear on a loop. There’s worry that whatever happened will happen again.

Brad Stolbach, a trauma psychologist at the University of Chicago, said this kind of trauma often takes on a life of its own.

“That experience, in a lot of ways, it lives by itself,” he told me last year while I was working on a story on the impact of trauma in young people in gun-weary Chicago. “It doesn’t get integrated with the rest of your memory, the rest of your brain, the rest of yourself. Then we go to great lengths to keep it out of awareness.” If we don’t find ways to integrate a near-death experience, it can change the way we live. “We function as if we are in there, in that moment, under constant threat, as if it’s still happening to us, or we function as if it never happened,” Dr. Stolbach said.

I was reminded of Ahriel Fuller, a young woman I met a few years ago in Chicago. She had survived being shot when she was 6 years old. She told me that even more than a dozen years later, it was as if that bullet was still screaming toward her.

She sat among a group of nearly 20 other young people who all recounted stories of witnessing shootings and beatings or being victims of them. A group of young people in folding chairs, with earbuds dangling from their necks, who could talk matter-of-factly about what it felt like when the bullet pierced their stomach or they saw people they loved being gunned down. These kinds of memories, they said, clung regardless of how hard they tried to shake them.

“It never leaves you,” Ms. Fuller said. The challenge is not to become numb.

A blood clot and a bullet are very different things. But both have the ability to take or shred a life. The physical and emotional toll that both can leave on their victims and those who witness them can be lasting. Both take a physical toll — that is obvious — and an emotional toll, which is sometimes less evident. And both require attention.

Fortunately, I’d suffered only minimal heart damage, but enough to leave me exhausted most days. After months of cardiac rehab, running on the treadmill, lifting weights and tugging at the rowing machine, I slowly began to repair the physical damage that was done. But the emotional rehab continues.

About seven months ago, exhausted and stressed out, I stood up too quickly and suffered syncope, medical jargon for passing out. When I came to I was lying in my hallway in a pool of sweat. My wife was clutching my face, again, wide-eyed and terrified. I thought I was dying. I called my daughter close and told her that I loved her. I said what I’d said dozens of times before at her bedside: “You’re going to do something special one day.” She nodded a yes. “Do you believe it?” I asked.

“Yes, Daddy, I believe it,” she assured me.

I tried to get up, but sank back to the floor. Minutes later my home was filled with firefighters taking my vitals and then paramedics.

My daughter, giddy with the commotion, stroked my head and my back and said she’d be here with me and that she loved me. I shooed her away to the living room. I covered my face and wept. I didn’t want her last memory of me to be me stumbling from my office and collapsing to the ground in a sweaty heap.

It has been about a year and a half since my heart attack. And until very recently there hadn’t been an hour of any day that I hadn’t thought about almost dying. It’s always there: when I wake up, when I’m dropping my daughter off at school, when I’m telling my wife to have a good day at work, when I’m at the office, when I’m on the road.

On nights when I see my wife and daughter together, dancing across our living room floor, Beyoncé on the speaker and my baby leading the choreography, I’m almost brought to tears. It’s not that every small moment is now overflowing with emotion — I’m just more present while deciding on a board game to play or what takeout to order, less distracted, less focused on what’s happening tomorrow, or how dominant I am in a game of Uno.

I’ve given myself permission to feel it all, every single emotion. The good and bad alike. My own personal narrative has always been one of overcoming adversity and remaining strong for those around me. I still am, but I am also able to admit that sometimes I’m scared.

The further I get from my heart attack, the more the rattling of fear has faded. I’ve begun meditating, which allows me to acknowledge the most frightening thoughts, and let them float on by. I’m feeling stronger and healthier than I have in years. I eat better, exercise regularly and am down more than 20 pounds. I’m training for my first half-marathon in the spring.

I’ve also met so many others who’ve suffered heart attacks, some as young as I was. The network of survivors is a large and constantly growing group that no one wants to join, but all are thankful to be in. A heart attack either kills you or it doesn’t.

I spent the better part of 16 years reporting stories that led me to people who had just missed death. Who understood, better than anyone else, what it is like to make a narrow escape. Ms. Fuller was 19 when I met her, more than a dozen years removed from the bullet. Since the heart attack, I’ve been thinking about what she told me. That it’s important not to be numb. It’s important to say: I could have died.

I didn’t. I have tomorrow, or at least this moment. I want to live.

Trymaine Lee (@trymainelee) is a MSNBC correspondent.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Life After a Heart Attack at Age 38. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe