It Began With A Run


The adventure began during the first week of December 1990. I was out jogging around the perimeter of the Air Force base where I was stationed in Italy.

As I was running, I suddenly felt a pain. No, not like the pain that is commonly associated with a muscle pull or a bone pain, but a burning pain. The pain was right around the sternum. I passed a friend who was running and started to complain about how thick the air was that day. My friend questioned my judgment with one look. I did not understand his look then. I ran on, with the burning pain in my chest.

The day after my “thick air” run, I was running and again felt the burning sensation in my chest. This time, it started moving to my right shoulder and then down my right arm, finally stopping at the tips of my two outer fingers. The pain was so weird and so sudden that I felt at that point a very gloomy feeling of death. But I was a healthy 35-year-old. For Pete’s sake, there was no way I was REALLY sick. Right? I shook the pain off as if it were a muscle sprain.

I told my wife, Kathy, I had a pain, described it as probably a cold and took some more cold medicine. Later I found out that high blood pressure was part of the problem with my heart, and taking something that was high in sodium was probably not smart at all. But, heck, what did I know?

I ran again the next day and guess what happened? Duh, I had the same pain, and this time I barely made it a quarter mile before I could not feel my right arm. So, I went back to the gym, took a shower and returned to work. I thought I might have something more than just a cold (probably not, but you never know), and thought the doctor could cure my ills. I made the appointment and hoped that it would be just a quick examination and I could get back to eating what I wanted, and exercising.

The doctor took a look at me, saw that I was a healthy weight, did not smoke, exercised, and then he listened to my heart. At first, because of my healthy history and habits, he ruled out anything having to do with the heart from the standpoint of diseased heart tissue. Then I told him that I had this foreboding of death. I said something like “funny, no?” to him. This resulted in a stare and then jotting of notes. He referred me to the Naval Hospital at Naples to ensure that they could rule out the heart. I would drive up within the next few days and undergo a stress test.

In the meantime, I was not allowed to run. That didn’t stop me from running, but the pain was a little too much, so I didn’t run as far. Really stupid, you say? Denial was part of the plan that I executed again and again, using my running skill to test the heart. The doctors would later say that I used my own personal stress test to see how far I could take the pain. Fortunately for me, as one doctor said later, I have a strong heart and it never failed me.

Over the next several years I had a half-dozen heart events that put me in the hospital. There were numerous bouts of angina as my coronary arteries slowly failed. I visited several catheterization labs in Europe and the United States for angioplasties that would push the plaque aside for a few months. After my fourth angina event — over the July 4th holiday in 1991 — the doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center performed an angioplasty and atherectomy. I was 35 years old, and they said they had never done that procedure on someone so young. And it did the trick for almost a decade, until I blocked again in 2000 while running. That was my sixth cardiac event, and my sixth procedure was a triple bypass.

The result — I am on statin drugs and blood pressure medicine, but thanks to some great support from my family and my doctor, along with some smarter eating and exercise, I have been pain free for over 15 years. My wife and I decided to write a book on the subject — called “Whole Heartedly — A Journal/Journey.”

Heart disease is something that you do not cure, but control. You have to be aware that this is something that will be with you for the rest of your life. If you come to that realization, and work to control the disease, you can live a long and prosperous life. I run, spend time with my children and my wife and know that they were the ones that helped me through this nightmare. They are the ones who are always there. Take advantage of those assets.

Survivor Chris Greco with his wife Kathy and daughters Kata and Sara

This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed or linked to have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Heart Association.

Our HeartFelt department highlights our readers’ experiences with heart disease from their own perspective. We’re always looking for contributions, so please send us yours. Before submitting, please review our Writer’s Guidelines.

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