It was shortly after lunch when Tom Carney noticed a tightness in his chest.
Thinking it might be a heart attack, he called his wife to say he was heading to the doctor.
But when he hung up, he dismissed the feeling as indigestion or heartburn. The 52-year-old finished his work day and then took his regular kickboxing class, but the tight, uncomfortable feeling in his chest persisted.
“I was short of breath a bit, like someone had put a belt around my chest and cranked it a few notches and just didn’t let go,” Carney said.
He had hoped pushing through a workout would make the discomfort go away.
When it didn’t, Carney drove with his wife to Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha. In the emergency room, doctors confirmed Carney’s initial thought: He was having a heart attack.
Since the incident in May, the Omahan has stuck to his exercise routine but revamped his diet. By cutting down on sodium and saturated fat, he’s lost about 25 pounds.
Before his heart attack, Carney worked out five times a week at Farrell’s eXtreme Bodyshaping, but his diet left room for improvement.
“I had a motto that I worked out hard so I could eat what I wanted,” Carney said.
He and his wife, Patty, would go to a local restaurant every Tuesday with friends. His go-to dinner order was a burger and fries.
“I was a guy who would get his hands in a chip bag and take one handful. If one was good, two is better, maybe three,” said Carney, who described himself as “a little chunky” prior to his heart attack.
After a February visit to the doctor, Carney made some slight changes to his diet, but those went out the window during a 10-day trip to Europe with his 82-year-old father, Dan. They dined on pizza, pasta, cheeses and burgers.
About a week after he returned from the trip, Carney had the heart attack.
The CDC estimates about 750,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. Those with high blood pressure and high cholesterol are at risk of having a heart attack, as well as people who are obese, diabetic or smoke. Other risk factors include physical inactivity and poor diet.
Genetics also play a role in heart health, said Carney’s cardiologist, Dr. Himanshu Agarwal of CHI Health in Omaha.
“There’s no certain way you can beat the genetics,” Agarwal said. “If you do have a bad family history of heart attacks, exercising and eating healthy will definitely help to sort of postpone things.”
Making good choices regarding diet and exercise are good preventative measures, but also become necessary after a heart attack.
“It’s a whole lifestyle modification. You cannot just take medications and hope everything will get better,” Agarwal said. “It’s a combination of everything.”
Heart health was in the back of Carney’s mind after his father had a heart attack while in his mid-50s. So Carney wasn’t entirely surprised to have had a heart attack, too.
By the time Carney reached the emergency room, one artery was completely blocked.
Doctors placed a stent in Carney’s blocked artery. He spent three days in the hospital. While he noticed relief in his chest, he felt tired for a few days. He has since been released to resume his normal exercise routine.
To improve his diet, Carney has focused on lowering his saturated fat and sodium intake. It has made a difference. The 5-foot-8 man weighed 180 pounds in May. Now, he’s just under 155 pounds.
During weekly dinners out, he opts for salmon and vegetables instead of a burger and fries.
At home, Patty Carney does the cooking. She sometimes spends hours perusing nutrition labels at the grocery store.
“My wife has read food labels before, but we’re maniacal about it now,” Tom Carney said.
Patty said dietary changes can make grocery shopping, eating out and vacations tough, but alternatives are on menus and grocery store shelves.
She has been happy to adapt her cooking style to suit her husband’s restrictions, though she still likes to indulge in the occasional sweet treat.
“When I cook, it’s for us. It’s not something for me and something for him,” she said. “Even when our kids come over for dinner, they’re going to get something healthy because that’s what we eat.”
To improve heart health, the American Heart Association recommends adopting a healthy eating plan, becoming physically active, quitting smoking and managing stress. Some people also need medication.
Carney takes four medications that work to help manage his heart rate, prevent clots from forming and help improve his cholesterol levels.
He also took cardiac rehab, a medically-supervised program that teaches patients to exercise, manage risk factors and tackle stress. The monitored exercise and education sessions at Immanuel provided Carney and his wife with peace of mind.
About a month after cardiac rehab, Carney was cleared to resume his workouts at Farrell’s, 15791 West Dodge Road. In a recent class, he was one of about 20 who warmed up, hopping up and down to fast-paced music. He bounced around a punching bag, delivering hooks, jabs and kicks.
Carney credits his post-heart attack recovery to having spent 18 sessions in cardiac rehab and to his wife’s help. He likely wouldn’t have made these changes on his own.
“I would never have made the adjustments to my lifestyle if it weren’t for my heart attack. No way,” Carney said.