Mike McCosker always feared that his having a heart attack was a foregone conclusion. There is a history of heart trouble in his family, including his father, who has survived two attacks. Still, it came as a shock when it actually happened since he was only 44 years old.
“There are so many emotions that I struggled with — it’s not my fault; it’s not fair; why is this happening to me?” Mike recalls. “But heart disease is not a respecter of age.”
Mike always pictured himself living somewhere other than Hinsdale, the New Hampshire town he’s called home since childhood. But since returning from Rhode Island in the early 1990s with his wife, Tina, Mike has woven himself deeply into its fabric, working as the school district’s athletic director and serving as pastor of the North Hinsdale Community Church.
“My passion has always been working with youth,” says Mike. He and Tina worked with the Agape Christian Fellowship youth group in Brattleboro and Mike has coached most of the sports programs in the Hinsdale School District at one time or another, twice earning Athletic Director of the Year honors. These days, his coaching efforts are focused on the unified basketball team, an all-abilities competitive sports program. “In all of my coaching, nothing has been more rewarding. It brings you back to what youth sports is supposed to be: fun.”
It was at the start of the softball season, three years ago, when the heart attack Mike had feared arrived. Thursday, March 29 of 2012 began, coincidentally, with a trip to his primary care provider. The visit was scheduled to address a minor skin issue, but once that was resolved his doctor took the opportunity to reinforce the importance of weight management, healthy eating and cholesterol reduction. Though Mike was exhibiting no symptoms of impending heart problems that day, his doctor was concerned about Mike’s weight gain, and he pulled no punches saying so.
“He got on me,” Mike remembers. “He had already been working with me to get my cholesterol under control and my weight down, so his concern made me leave the appointment wanting to make a concerted effort to work on those issues.”
Half an hour before that afternoon’s softball practice, as Mike was completing a twenty-minute run on the treadmill, he became aware of a strange sensation in his chest — more like indigestion than pain. As practice began, he was having trouble catching his breath. He asked the varsity baseball coach to take over for a few minutes. The coach told him to go home and rest.
His daughter, Rachel, was the only family member home when Mike arrived. “She asked, tongue in cheek, if I was having a heart attack,” Mike chuckled. “I said I didn’t know. I laid down and when I did, that’s when I knew what was going on, because the pain felt like I was getting stabbed from both sides.” Rachel, then 16 years old, contacted Tina as well as Mike’s mother, who still lived nearby then drove her father to the Emergency Department at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
The pain he was feeling, and the medications he was given have clouded Mike’s recollection of many details from that BMH Emergency Department visit, but he remembers things happening quickly and urgently. “They brought me right into an exam room, immediately hooked me up to monitors and gave me some nitro tablets,” says Mike. John Dixon, MD made a quick decision to call for the DHART (Dartmouth Hitchcock Advanced Response Team) helicopter, “and that’s when we knew that this was a pretty significant event.” recalls Mike. He remembers his wife pressing the doctor for details. “She asked him if I was that bad off, and Dr. Dixon looked at her and said, ‘No, he’s just that precious’. Looking at the faces of my wife, my daughter and my mother as they were wheeling me into the helicopter, that’s probably the hardest thing I’ve seen in my life.”
At Dartmouth-Hitchcock, cardiologist Bruce Hettelman, MD successfully cleared a coronary embolism from Mike’s left artery. (Mike later was sobered to learn that his particular type of heart attack is almost always fatal to young men like him. He also discovered that his father’s first heart attack also occurred at age 44.)The Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical staff recommended he undergo cardiac rehabilitation, which he had the option to do there or at BMH. With BMH’s nationally-certified program right in his own backyard, Brattleboro was the obvious choice.
“So humbling” are the words Mike uses to describe his first day in the BMH Cardiac Rehab program. That was when it really hit home how young he was to have had so serious a heart attack. Looking around the room at the other participants pedaling away on stationary bicycles and walking briskly on treadmills, he realized he quite literally could have been the child of many of his fellow patients in the program. Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist; Jeff Harr and Physical Therapy Assistant, Casey Blust determined that Mike’s youth and athletic background lent itself to a unique type of program. They set him up on the rowing machine, in addition to the treadmill, so he could build strength throughout his body and improve his cardiovascular conditioning. “They started with a conservative approach, then pushed me harder as my body began to heal,” remembers Mike. There was a fair amount of good-natured trash talking as they engaged Mike’s competitive spirit and kept him motivated to succeed. “Not every moment was sunshine and butterflies,” he chuckles “but I knew that if I wanted my health back it was going to take an all-in commitment.” Mike was buoyed through the 12 weeks of cardiac rehab by the feeling of camaraderie in the room. “We each had our own story, but we were all in it together,” he recalls.
Mike’s natural athleticism allowed him to progress quickly with the physical part of cardiac rehab. The education piece, however, was revelatory. “That was probably even more beneficial,” he says. Mike was not a smoker or drinker. What he learned was that the chief culprit in his lifestyle that helped bring on a heart attack was his diet. “In the program we talked about what we eat, why we eat and what goes into what we eat. The basic American diet, when you break it down into sugar and fat, looks kind of scary.”
A change in his eating habits helped him shed nearly 40 pounds. Some of that has returned three years later, but Mike says the feeling of wellness he has regained goes beyond the physical. He describes it as a “mental alertness” and “just feeling healthier.” His heightened awareness led to other changes as well. “That rehab stuff, getting up at 5:30am and getting on the treadmill, can be so lonely. So I started setting myself some goals,” says Mike, with the clear-eyed determination of a lifelong athlete and coach. He discovered a love for road cycling and recently participated in the 50 mile Boston Bikes ride and has also competed in the Tough Mudder at Mount Snow.
From time to time, Mike will see some of his fellow BMH Cardiac Rehab patients out in the community and they always ask about each other’s progress. “We’re bonded by our experience” he says. His experience in the program was so valuable that he will be making time to sit in on some of the educational portions of the program again as a refresher, which Jeff and Casey have graciously offered him the ability to do.
“Jeff and Casey were great. I look back on some of our conversations, whether it was a little bit of tough love or good encouragement, they were awesome,” says Mike.
“Every memory I have of my time in cardiac rehab is a fond one – I even miss the rowing machine!” Prior to his heart attack, Mike had never needed the services of BMH. “Now I know what a valuable asset it is to our community,” he says. “From the very first moments of Dr. Dixon’s quick intervention through all of the weeks in rehab, I was never treated like just another number. I received the best possible care and I have the highest regard for BMH.”
Now, at age 47 with both kids in college, Mike is ready to enjoy the empty nest life with Tina. He is also excited to see his son get married later this year. On March 29, 2015 he celebrated the 3rd anniversary of his heart attack, which has come to be fondly known in the McCosker house as “Staying Alive Day”. “I feel great. I’m glad to say my life is not hindered at all. Life doesn’t have to stop because of a heart attack.”