I have a saying I use with my patients who are prone to fret as they grow, and feel, older.  “Every day on the green side,” I say to them, “is a good day.” Now that my wife, Danielle, is no longer here to share these days with me, I appreciate very much the effort she put in to making our “green side” as pleasant and inviting as possible.

We recently spent a long weekend mucking out the backyard pond and removing several dozen crawfish so the tadpoles and dragon flies would come back. They are back in force. The blueberry bushes, including the new ones we brought at the Botanical Gardens plant sale, are producing berries and the birds are, with the help of a netting reminder, leaving them on the bush long enough to stay ripe. The chickens continue to lay even after the flock has been reduced to a more manageable three birds. The citrus trees are loaded with fruit. Even the leak in the fountain has slowed, allowing me to keep the water feature flowing and providing the birds with a place to bathe. Here, in Danielle’s urban patch of green, the promise of renewal that spring brings to the gulf coast continues. Danielle is still with us, in her way, here on the green side.

Sudden cardiac death. That, in stark “doctor words,” is how she left those of us still on the green side. Although because of prompt paramedic response she still had a heart rhythm on and off after arriving at the hospital, it soon became clear that, clinically, she had left us on that Sunday, three weeks ago, while still in the house. I like to think that, once called, she decided to stick around. At the very least, she intends to make sure that the crawfish population stays down so she can continue to watch the dragon flies from the kitchen window. I choose to believe that is the case in part because draining that pond was very hard work.

Very few people study sudden cardiac death (SCD) in the general population, mostly because there is little clinical information to be had after the fact. If people make it to the hospital while having their heart attacks, we can mobilize millions of dollars of equipment and personnel to preserve their heart function. When we know that a person is at significant risk for sudden cardiac death, we implant defibrillators which stand at the ready to shock the heart back into compliance should it get out of kilter.

Most SCD happens to relatively healthy people, as it did with Danielle. As documented on the American Heart Association web site, every year about 300,000 people will succumb to SCD. This is about 15% of the deaths that occur in America annually. Of those, about half of the men and two-thirds of the women will have no reason at all to suspect a problem. The modifiable risk factors (hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, kidney dysfunction, obesity, and smoking) have all been brought to the attention of the public. Improvements in management of hypertension and diabetes and reduction of smoking has lead to a reduction in all deaths from heart disease, including SCD.  A surprising number of these events occur during exercise (which tends to make the news and provides an excuse  for those who embrace the couch potato lifestyle). Jim Fixx perhaps is the most famous victim of sudden cardiac death while exercising. For the most part, habitual exercise is protective. That is, once it becomes a habit.

In Danielle’s case, genetics clearly played a role. However, saying “genetics plays a role” is not the same as saying “it runs in families” like red hair. There is a complex interaction between genes that makes us all unique. Family history doubles the risk of SCD. A rare event becomes half as rare. So far, researchers have identified 23 different gene areas that might play a part. Mathematics suggests that finding a pattern useful for screening or targeted treatment is still many years away.

So, what does this mean for SCD? In the words of the investigators, “Our ability to accurately identify individuals most at risk for SCD within the population remains poor.” Preventing SCD, as of now, is the same as preventing all heart disease. Eat right, exercise regularly, monitor blood pressure and get checked for diabetes if you are one of those at risk. Make exercise a habit and report unusual symptoms such as passing out, chest pain while exercising that improves with rest,  or unusual amounts of fatigue. Fund emergency services adequately but realize they are not the answer. Support policy efforts to make exercise more accessible.  Bike lanes are one such example. Support policies to reduce exposure to cigarette smoke and access to healthy food. Support research but realize the research will be difficult and expensive to perform.

How about for those of us still on the green side? Support dragon fly habitats. Eschew backyard crawfish breeding. Plant fruit trees. And remember, every day on the green side is a good day.

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