On the way to the health clinic, some 60 miles west, I drive through a town called Denmark. This makes me happy and I slow down a little to savor it. It is only two houses and a township building. In the landlocked landscape that is Ohio, the sound of “Denmark” in my head conjures windy beaches, words with ø’s, Danish pastries. I want to go to real-Denmark some day.
Last winter, I had to drive through blowing snow across Denmark as I visited the clinic every two weeks. I had signed up as a guinea pig for a study of a new drug, a PCSK9 inhibitor. (Whenever I see “PCSK9,” I think “pesky.”) The drug contains antibodies that block PCSK9, a protein that reduces the liver’s ability to remove bad LDL cholesterol. I first read about the study in the New York Times and found a pharmaceutical company that was running a study in Ohio. The study is conducted in a small office room stuffed with notebooks on clinical trials, testing instruments, and Sean Hannity bloviating on the radio.
Because I had a heart attack five years ago, at the “young” age of 48, and persistently high LDL cholesterol, I was a prime candidate for the study. My father died of a heart attack at 62, attributed largely to a combination of high triglycerides and high LDL. My sister died when she was 52—the coroner said she had “tiny arteries,” three of which were blocked.
I had the widow-maker – my left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery was more than 90% blocked. You can read more about that here. I read somewhere that heart attack survivors fear having another attack and surviving more than they do dying. I’m glad I’m not the only one. So much about heart disease is related to lifestyle—diet, smoking, stress, obesity, sedentary habits. Guilt and shame come easy.
According to the CDC, about 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths and slightly more than cancer. Every year about 720,000 Americans have a heart attack. I have seen five friends die of heart disease in the last four years and only one was older than 55.
Within a couple of months of my first visit, I was accepted into the study. Every two weeks, I give myself a shot in the thigh. It hurts a little. The needle is large. When I asked the administrator how long the study lasts, how long I would need to give myself shots, she told me, “Until there is an event.” An event? She didn’t say anything. Then I realized she meant until I have another heart attack. (A mean statistic that terrified me during the first couple of years after my heart attack was the 50% chance that I would have another one, and likely die, within two years. My heart was a landmine with a hair trigger that could explode at any time.)
Technically, I should not know if I am receiving the drug or a placebo. It is a double-blind experiment. However, I get my lipids tested every six months before my visit with my cardiologist. When I had blood drawn earlier this year, I learned that my total cholesterol was cut in half – from over 200 to just 113. My LDL went from 108 to 40. My triglycerides dropped from 305 to 139. For each percentage drop, my heart disease risk drops by the same percentage. I was shocked, grateful, and cautiously optimistic.
Each day, I thank my lucky stars. I will get to drive through the little town of Denmark again.
How scary to have experienced a heart attack – and 48 is super young! I’m so glad to hear that your total cholesterol has dropped so significantly. Congratulations! I love your ending to this piece. Wishing you years and years of good health and a happy heart.
It was terrifying, I’ll admit. Thanks for your kind words. I’m looking forward to reading your interview over at yeahwrite!
Gppd fpr you! Well worth the needle then
Well you know I meant ‘Good’!
Hah! I knew! Thanks for reading, Helen!
Praise God! I’m thankful too, that you get to drive through the town of Denmark. It’s funny, when we’re younger and our health is good, we don’t often think about being thankful for our health. However, when we get older, and our health begins to fail, we suddenly become more cognizant of the frailty of life. As I read your story about having a heart-attack at age 48, I thought back to five years ago, when I too, was 48. I was going strong then, as a prison minister, and I had a dance ministry. But then somewhere around three years ago, the back pain that I had dealt with off and on my whole life, became an everyday reality, and that chronic pain has gotten worse and worse, until I can hardly walk some days. I didn’t know to be thankful just a few years ago, when I felt good, but now, when I have a good day (when the pain is still there, but more tolerable), I thank God for those days, and I cherish them, and now that I’m faced with the reality of how short our time on earth really is, I’m thankful even for the days when I hurt, because it could be worse. Suppose I couldn’t feel anything? Or what if I had a heart attack like you did? Or suppose I wasn’t alive to see my husband, my children and my grandchildren? Yes, even though I’m in constant pain, I’m still thankful for each day I have. Thank you for this wonderful post that reminded me to be thankful.
I pray that you are one of the exceptions to the statistics, and that you NEVER have another “event,” in Jesus’ name. Your story truly touched my heart, and I pray your heart beats stronger than ever.
God bless you,
Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Cheryl. It was one of those blog posts I’ve been wanting to write, mostly to share with others that there is a new drug that holds some great promise for those of us with inherited cholesterol issues.
I’m so sorry about your back pain! I also had chronic pain — I finally went to a surgeon because I started losing control of my right arm. They replaced two discs in my neck. It isn’t perfect but I’ve still got my arm! I’m not 100% for surgery, but sometimes you just have to do it. I do hope that you are able to manage the pain. Life is short.
Finally, gratitude. Your words are spot on — finding gratitude makes life richer. And easier. Thank you so much for sharing. Means a lot.
Thank God for Denmark! This is great news. I’ve been on cholesterol medication for a couple years now. which is a pisser because I’m not quite 40 yet, i haven’t eaten red meat since 1989, and I exercise regularly. those of us with genetic predispositions have a fighting chance thanks to your volunteerism. So thank you too!
You are very welcome! 🙂 It sounds like the drug may be available in a couple of years. I’m in Phase III of the study, which is the final stage, as I understand it. The FDA has concerns about neurological damage from cholesterol that is too low, so that might slow it down. I don’t think they’ve been running the study long enough to see those side effects. Thanks for reading, Nate. And good for you for taking care of yourself!
Hi, have any of your doctors ever suggested you might have a genetic lipid disorder, such as familial combined hyperlipidemia or familial hypercholesterolemia? There is a Facebook group for people with FH and their families. You are welcome to join if you are interested.
Yes, indeed, Marilyn. It is suspected that our family has hyperlipidemia…the triglyceride level combined with LDL tends to be really high. My dad’s LDL wasn’t outrageously high when he died but his triglyceride was. Same with me when I had my heart attack. Thanks so much for the FB link. I will definitely join up. And thanks, too, for the Twitter mention. Hope is out there!
Oh wow – be well. I agree with the person up thread who said that 48 is too young. And not just because I’m 49. 😉
Yeah, I felt I was too young to have a heart attack, that’s for sure! Thanks for reading, Linda.
That’s so scary but I’m happy to see that it seems to be working! My aunt had an, albeit minor, heart attack earlier this year. It was still terrifying. She’s the youngest of the three sisters so it hit my mom and other aunt pretty hard in multiple ways. She had a mini-defibrillator installed soon after that we named ‘Ready Kilowatt’. She’s doing well but it’s still scary. Keep your spirit up!
I think any heart attack would be terrifying — so glad your aunt is ok! I like the defibrillator name. That’s great!
Oh my goodness. So much in this post. Wishing you good health and many new days to be thankful for.
Thank you, Michelle. Very kind of you.
How scary! Ugh health stuff.. gives me the willies. I’m so glad that your numbers have gone down now!
Me too! Thanks, Jen.
“until there is an event” sounds like a terrifying prospect. Here’s open the numbers continue to go down and that you have many winters to drive through Denmark.
Yeah, that phrase kinda freaked me out. Thanks for your good thoughts and for reading.
Wow, what a condition to live with! I’m so glad you’ve seen positive results.
I’ve just been getting to know your writing, and I’m glad I found it, because you have a way with words.
Thank you, Natalie! Really appreciate your time — I’m a fan of your writing.
YOU are the brave one! I can’t even think about needles without cringing. I’m happy that your numbers came way down, so awesome! 🙂
I have plenty of fears but, thankfully, needles aren’t one of them! 😉 Thanks for reading, Monica.
Ah, I was at first drawn to this as I have lived for a wee while in real-Denmark about 10 years ago…Well I have read this, and read it over again, and I don’t feel like there is any combination of words in a little comment box to do it and the magnitude of its subject matter and accompanying feelings justice, as really there is not, but suffice to say I am extraordinarily glad that you have taken this harrowing experience and written about it, therefore turning it into art, and something beautiful that benefits us all. All the best, warmest thoughts for your continued health and happiness.
You are so kind, Stephen. Thank you for reading it. I drove through Denmark yesterday, in fact, and felt pretty good about myself. 😉