There are NO limits!

“Young man,” the Emergency Room doctor said, “You are in Congestive Heart Failure.” (CHF)

Oh…. shoot! That is not what I wanted to hear. The last time I was in CHF, I was 5 months old and on my way to Johns Hopkins Hospital. This time, I had recently gotten back from the best vacation of my life, and for a few moments I wondered if it would be my last vacation.

I had traveled by AMTRAK to four different cities, watching Minor League Baseball at each stop. At the first stop in Charleston, South Carolina, I got caught in a rainstorm while waiting for the transit bus and got soaked, and woke up the next morning feeling like I was getting a bad cold. I may actually have had a small cold, I don’t know, but as I look back I think that the Heart Failure was beginning to show itself. When I got home, I was still feeling draggy and tired, but I thought it was a result of my trip. Steve had just had too much fun! But when I went out to sweep the carport — something I had done countless times before — I was so tired that I had to stop and rest twice. That’s when I realized that something may be seriously wrong here.

So what exactly is Congestive Heart Failure? Your heart is losing its ability to efficiently pump blood. Imagine that you buy a rubber ball. You bounce that rubber ball all day long, every day, for years. And it always bounces just as high as it did on the day you bought it — that’s the way a heart is supposed to work. Now imagine that you have another rubber ball, and you bounce it just as much as you did the first one. But after some time passes your ball begins to wear out, and it won’t bounce as well as it did when it was new — that’s a heart going through heart failure.

If you get a diagnosis of CHF, naturally you want to know everything about it. Most people are going to head for their computer and Google it. You’ll read that the average person with heart failure passes five years after the diagnosis. Don’t believe that!

That figure takes into account EVERYONE… the elderly who develop CHF late in life, people who are sick with something else and then go into CHF, and the small number of people who read “5 years” and decide their life is over. It doesn’t have to apply to you.

Your doctor will probably put you on a low sodium, low liquid diet. The diet is very simple but extremely difficult, all at the same time. My personal limits are 2000 milliliters of liquid a day, and 2000 milligrams of sodium per day.

The liquid is the easy part. 2000 milliliters is two liters, and you’ve seen a two liter bottle of your favorite soft drink. You can’t drink any more than that 2 liter bottle per day. That’s not really difficult. Summer months will tempt you to go over your limit, but you learn to space it out and little tricks such as popping an ice cube into your mouth.

2000 Milligrams of Sodium is the hard part. How much is that? Take two individual serving size envelopes of Sweet ‘N’ Low and pour the contents onto the table. That’s 2000 milligrams.

The first thing to do to get down to 2000 milligrams is take the salt shaker off the table. Get it away from the stove, also. No longer do you cook with it, nor do you wave the salt shaker over your food.

The next step is pretty intensive label reading. The first time I went grocery shopping after being put on the diet, it took an hour and a half longer than usual, and all that time was reading labels. Prepared meats (in general) are no longer on your list, and it seems that soups are loaded with sodium. (Soup is a double whammy; it counts against your sodium limit AND your liquid limit. So be careful with soups.)

Every morning, as soon as your feet hit the floor, you do two things: You go to the bathroom, and then you weigh yourself. Try not to wear too many clothes when you weigh and also try to wear about the same thing each time. Record your weight and keep track of it. Most Cardiologist tell you that if you gain three pounds or more in a 24 hour period and you don’t have a good explanation for it (Overindulged at a birthday party, for example) then you are having problems. Most of them ask that you call the office; usually they’ll just tell you to take an extra diuretic to get you through the day. But repeated weight gain is a good indicator of a problem.

The next step you can take is exercise. Get a good pair of shoes, a pedometer, and start walking. Can’t walk far? No problem, start small and ease into it. The first day that I walked I could barely make it half a mile; now I’m up to three miles, and could probably go further. I’m “training” for a trip to Boulder, Colorado next year; my hometown is about 200 feet above sea level. Boulder is at about 6,000 feet. I want to be able to breathe comfortably when I go out there, so I’m really trying to push myself.

Another thing is your attitude. A small percentage of people hear the dreaded phrase “You have CHF” and they quit. “Woe is me!”, they say, and they roll into a little ball and quit participating in life, and they are not long for this world. You need to have the attitude that this is just one of many challenges in your life. Do things! Go places! Even when you don’t feel 100%, go as far as you can and do as much as possible. Never give in!

Remember, I am not a medical professional, but do you remember at the beginning of this story when that doctor told me that I was in Congestive Heart Failure? That was in the spring of 2002! I weighed 206 pounds back then. Today I weigh 158, and other than this hernia (See previous post) I feel like a million bucks! So five years is not a limit!


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