What It’s Like to Live With Heart Failure

By James L. Young II, told to Danny Bonvissuto

I was just your classic Mr. Unhealthy case. I went to fast food outlets daily, drank soda – or soft drinks, as they say in Michigan – and too much beer. I had a sitting job, I didn’t work and I smoked on top of that.

In many heart failure stories, people talk about eating poorly, smoking and not exercising, but they rarely get to the underlying reason. Why are they doing this to each other?

I had to face myself and figure out why I was doing these things to myself. I realized I was depressed and used fast food, smoking, and drinking as a band-aid. I had to face what ate me, instead of what I ate.

I thought long and hard and realized that I didn’t want to die. I didn’t go or I didn’t. But I had a small window to collect my number.

These are just allergies

I was gaining weight and getting more and more short of breath as I casually climbed the stairs. I had a lot of gout on my feet from drinking too much beer.

I ignored a lot of these things and diagnosed myself: all my discomfort, pain, and inability to sleep at night? I would call it allergies, whatever the season.

One winter we were thrown in with snow here in Michigan, and I pulled out the snow blower. I noticed I was coughing a lot – coughing up phlegm and spitting it out. Then I noticed there was a trail of blood.

I said, “Well, these are allergies.” So I would take cough syrup, which did nothing. I kept ignoring it until I was so physically in pain that my family sat me down and said, “You look really bad and you have to go to the doctor.”

The wake-up call

I was 40 years old and around 280 pounds. I had started seeing a primary care physician and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, systolic heart failure, cardiac myopathy, and chronic kidney disease.


I was so medicated that driving became difficult and dangerous. I was falling asleep at the traffic lights, so someone would have to drive me to my appointments.

On a date I just couldn’t get into the waiting room and felt warm everywhere. I apologized and walked over to the parking lot where, unbeknownst to me, I looked up to the sky and started to take deep breaths. My mom, who drove me to the appointment, asked my doctor and some of her staff to run into the parking lot to take care of me. They sent me to the emergency room.

After I was admitted and they took me into a room, the doctor came in and said, “Before I go into the details of why you are here, I just want to know how you got here. .

I said, “Like the mode of transportation?”

He said, “The highest number for your blood pressure is over 200 and the lower figure is below 200. You’re a kickstart.

“If you had waited a week, we would have a different conversation,” he says. “It would be about you, past.”

This is where things started to go wrong for me.

How i spilled it

I have minimized my consumption of fast food and added more vegetables to my diet. Instead of going to the bar and hanging out with the guys, I would go to this place in Detroit called The Water Station, where I would learn about proper hydration and the cons of dehydration. I also started to walk, jog and run every day on the track at a local high school.

One morning, I faced the mirror and realized that I had run out of beer casing. I weighed about 195.

My primary care physician was amazed. She said, “Now that you’re out of the storm, so to speak, I have to admit I didn’t think you were going to get there. Most of my patients when you were here are not doing it.


The power of choices

I can see how some heart patients can’t see a way out. You have to make a major change to what is familiar. It’s like Mars, and they can’t see themselves existing there.

My father died in 2014 of congestive heart failure and diabetic complications.

In my transition phase, from diagnosis to improving my health, my father and I had conversations and he confessed things to me. He said, “I’ve seen you change so much, eat better, do better.” And of course, I didn’t.

He said one last thing to me: “In life we ​​all make choices and decisions, and that puts us at different points in life. This is where I am in mine, based on the decisions I have made.

Why awareness is important to me

From there, I decided to take it up a notch, from sharing my journey on Facebook to advocacy work. All around me are large communities of people walking around in untreated – and often largely preventable – conditions. They just need to be educated about health.

Many people experience depression when diagnosed. This emotion is real, but you don’t have to stay there. You can get up and give yourself another chance.

I have partnered with the American Heart Association as a national heart failure ambassador, patient advocate, and secular science stakeholder. It brings me fulfillment and satisfaction and helps me manage hypertension.

The most important part for me is the interaction with the community. I don’t just sit behind a table and hand out flyers. I share my story with who will listen.

You only have one heart, but I have noticed that heart disease does not have the same sense of urgency in our society as other conditions. I’ve met people who’ve had heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, and they’ll go right back to what they did in the first place. It doesn’t click.

People tell me, “Well, I love my Big Macs,” but the body can only handle a lot of that. All the sodium, fat, and cholesterol are just ingredients for your heart to get weak and not working properly.

So many people don’t realize that heart failure is not a death sentence; it is an opportunity to change the trajectory of your health.


How i thrive today

I joke that I just go outside, pull up some lawn and sauté it in a pan with olive oil.

My breakfast includes kale or spinach. People say, “Who eats kale for breakfast?” I do this because I put green leafy vegetables in my body that contain vitamins and nutrients. And I drink water. I don’t think about it anymore – it’s just a part of me. It became my habit the same way eating 10 pieces of bacon and eggs fried in bacon fat was my habit.

Every week I go to the dollar store and buy 3-4 gallons of water. I don’t drink a full gallon a day, but I drink enough water.

For lunch, I eat a salad every day and drink more water.

Dinner consists of baked chicken or fish. The idea of ​​the drive-thru was almost completely suppressed from my life.

I have completed three half marathons. I’ve never done a full marathon because I’m only half crazy.

I took up cycling last year. It’s a great way to practice social distancing and exercise. And it’s more interesting for me than going out on the track and going around in circles.

I went from 11 meds a day to one for blood pressure.

Before he died, my father listed all of my family, their ages at the time of death and what they died of. When my doctor saw this, she decided to keep me on a low dose medication to compensate for my genetic link to heart problems.

I have as much positivity and encouragement around me as I can control. I got back to DJing, something I loved doing years ago. I have returned to school to complete my Bachelor of Commerce and plan to get my Masters in Public Health.

I am making conscious decisions now: this is how I want my life. If anything affects my happiness, it affects my health. I choose to be happy.

Ghosts of the past

The high school runway where I started exercising was near the liquor store I visited every night after work to refuel my favorite booze. One day, I forgot my water and entered the store. The owner looked like he had seen a ghost and said, “You used to come here often.”


While I was telling him my story, he put my alcoholic drink and my usual cigarettes on the counter.

I said, “No, I don’t want that.”

He said, “I’m sorry, I was listening to you talk, but I associate you with these things.”

Then he said, “I’m going to tell you something that I never tell clients: do you see that plexiglass? What do you think it is for? “

I said, “Protect yourself from a punch with a sawed off [shotgun]? “

“To protect alcohol,” he says. “I would never tell a customer not to drink. I am in business to make money. But you made my day. I am proud of you and happy that you are still here. You look alive.

“I feel alive,” I told him. “I feel good.”



James Young II, National Ambassador for Heart Failure, American Heart Association, Detroit.

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