“A lot of people have trouble with the notion of taking pills for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Sibbald allows. “But there’s a sea of random evidence to suggest that statin medicines save people from heart disease and make people live longer.”
But what of our collective prognosis? Thirty years ago, the medical world identified dietary fat as the principal villain of heart disease. An enormous and successful campaign was begun to reduce levels of fat in food. But to maintain flavour, food manufacturers began to increase sugar levels, typically fructose, that many researchers now believe are responsible for the alarming growth of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
In his book, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease, U.S. endocrinologist Robert Lustig calls sugar “the biggest perpetrator of our current health crisis … a toxin, pure and simple.”
Studies show that people who consume large quantities of sweeteners – corn syrup, table sugar, maple syrup, honey – have lower blood levels of “good HDL” cholesterol and higher triglyceride levels. Increasingly, a sugar-saturated diet is being seen as a major contributor to cardiovascular disease.
‘Not a licence to eat KFC three times a week’
Ten days after surgery, I went home. It was the dead of winter, too cold to walk outside, so I walked indoors, a 57-second circuit through the dining room, living room and kitchen.
I tried to increase my endurance every day. Five minutes one day, six minutes the next, etc. Tedious but essential. In a few weeks, I was up to 15 minutes. The first stair climb to the bedroom was agonizingly slow, but got easier.
Two months after surgery, I formally started cardio rehab at Toronto Western Hospital – a combination of treadmill walking, stationary bicycle and arm cycling. Attendants recorded my pulse and blood pressure before and after each session.
A month after that, able to walk at a brisk pace for half an hour, I decided to see if I could run. I had to stop after less than a minute. The next day, I tried again, and was able to run a whopping one-20th of a mile. These results were discouraging, but I kept at it, adding a little more distance with each outing. By late July, I could run just under 2.5 miles without stopping. My pace was glacial – 14 minutes a mile – but I was not about to complain. Lately, I am running shorter distances (two miles), but slightly faster (27 minutes).
Meanwhile, I worked on my diet. Out went food I loved – most breads, cheese and sweets. In came more beans, fish and greens once alien to my dinner plate (kale, Swiss chard, rapini) but now savoured for their antioxidant-rich, heart-healthy features. So far this year, I have consumed exactly one steak, one hamburger and one spare rib. My morning habit of stopping at Tim Hortons for a toasted bagel and a double-double is history. As Dr. Yau says, “Having bypass surgery is not a licence to eat KFC three times a week.”
Now, nine months since the operation, my cholesterol levels are lower. My weight is down. My scars are barely visible. I have resumed my normal life.
But my sudden encounter with mortality has doubtless changed me. I take the commitment to more exercise and a healthier diet seriously. In a sense, bearing the burden of my heredity, it’s more important – not less – to minimize the potential impact of other risk factors.
Beyond that, I am more conscious than ever of time’s winged chariot. I have made carpe diem (seize the day) my unofficial mantra. The future is less important than the now. Tomorrow is less important than today. The present is all we really have. Therefore, as best you can, try to be ever present.
Dumb, tired clichés, I know. Or so I used to think.
The recognition of my shortening horizon yielded another life change. Even before the surgery, I had contemplated a career shift. There were things I wanted to do – books to write, places to see.
I was still in consideration mode when my employer offered its staff a buyout package. I signed on and joined the ranks of the semi-retired in July. I tell myself every day how lucky I am – for the care I received, from surgeon to hospital orderly, and for the precious extra time I have been given to be with those I love.
Life has kindly extended my visitor’s visa. I intend to make the most of it.