Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Suspended Animation....My Heart Attack

Suspended Animation....My Heart Attack

February 25, 2011

Heart disease amongst Asians is on the increase - find out why it gets some people animated.

There comes a point of realisation in every recovering cardiac patient’s life when a heart attack stops being a credible excuse for anything – and that might include writing their first blog post on The NRI. 

However, despite the inevitability of that, the memory of the event never goes away - blow by blow account aside, in the context of your common or garden Acute Myocardial Infarction, it was possibly only remarkable because (a) it was totally unexpected (b) I don’t fit into the “profile” for a typical cardiac patient – or so I thought.

I work in a busy animation studio in London, I’m in my early 50’s, divorced and caring for my two kids, one of whom has special needs, freelance for most of my career and apart from chronic chest problems, I’m generally fit, with no history of heart problems in the family - and I’m Asian.

If most of the above reads like a recipe for a heart attack, then certainly, for as long as I have been in animation, stress has been an ever-present factor and I tend to thrive on it – until my heart attack I did pride myself on my ability to multi-task – storyboarding here, compositing there, often at the same time, on different jobs and for different producers.

On this occasion it was like the collapsing mine scene in “Temple of Doom” – a crazy headlong rush towards a conclusion, with twists and turns - like losing all our assets 2 days before completion, prompting the director to actually say at one point, “this job is going to give me a heart attack”.

The job ?...for the curious, a commercial for recycling in which discarded packaging gets a second lease of life through re-cycling…and the irony is not lost on me, thanks...

And other perceived risk factors? - well, a colleague recently suggested that I had always hidden my stress by presenting a very calm exterior – hey, I’m a “Swami” right ?

I never considered my being Asian and working in animation to be a serious health issue
other than it being a rather risky career choice considering what was the “norm” for most 1st Gen’ British Asians, when I started out in the early 80’s.

I don’t smoke and drink moderately
, in a business typified by a high level of social drinking in Soho pubs. Up until the “event”, I had got into a habit of dining with colleagues at lunchtime, a necessary break from the computer – although my diet for the previous 6 months might terrify a cardiologist – pulled-pork at Bodean’s in Poland St, builders breakfasts at Bruno’s in Wardour St, either side of the cheapest lunch in Soho, at Wong Kee, in Chinatown – a place where once even the most sensitive of souls would have been case-hardened by the famously abusive waiters, after just a few visits.

My heart attack occurred at home, on the evening of the 19th November 2010, barely an hour after getting in from work and, uncharacteristically, after two bottles of Becks and some snacks at an after-work event, and, un-reformed workaholic that I am, job-in-hand finished before leaving work.

What followed was a blur of paramedics, A&E, and a week in hospital, culminating in an angiogram & angioplasty – a stent inserted into one of the arteries, under local anaesthetic.

Not being totally clued up on the ins and outs of heart attacks and heart disease, there being no reason to make a thorough study of the subject, the whole thing became an education, especially in terms of the impact of heart disease in the Asian community.

I was sharing a ward with a number of aged men and one Asian my age, due for a riskier multiple bypass, and discovered that the conventional image of a “typical” cardiac patient can vary enormously – for example, a young Afro-Caribbean man was admitted with heart problems caused by jogging in cold weather.

I was admitted on three more occasions due to scares, and kept under observation overnight - the norm for cardiac patients, being informed that it was advisable, since Asians seem to be especially susceptible to heart disease and that the age that it may occur is falling.

There are a raft of reasons for this increase amongst Asians, no longer confined to those described by my mother, that of working hard all their lives and then stopping altogether at retirement, only to collapse suddenly with a coronary.

Diet certainly plays a part in the equation, coupled with a change in lifestyle – In the South of India, which is where my family are from, diabetes & high blood pressure (early indicators of heart disease), despite a rigid vegetarian diet, are very common - this is due mostly to the large intake of rice, clarified butter (ghee), jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and little or no exercise – and is usually confined to people of more senior age, eg 50+.

The picture emerging across India and also worldwide, amongst Asians from different parts of India, matches the same basic dietary factors, and an increasingly sedentary, urban lifestyle, complicated by common hereditary disorders like Thalassemia.

Amongst the 30 - 40 age range, whilst there is the balancing effect of an outwardly healthy lifestyle, there is a tipping point resulting from high levels of work-related stress, social alcohol consumption & a virtually unchanged traditional diet.

There have been significant shifts in work patterns in India – re-location is more and more common, with the attendant stresses of adapting to changes in local culture, diet and, frequently, a faster, more “Western” lifestyle, driven by the work cultures of Multinationals.

There’s no evidence that “extreme sports” increase the likelihood of heart attacks, so you can carry on snow-boarding and bungee jumping, but excessive exercise can cause damage – during the 6 weeks of physiotherapy I have to undergo I discovered that a “safe” level of exercise is, on a scale of 1-10, between 4 and 5 – 10 being prolonged “pumping-iron” in your local gym - of no appreciable benefit to the health of the heart and carrying a risk of damage.

Alcohol and smoking are the primary means of combating stress for many people, and also happen to be 2 of the primary contributing factors to heart disease
– again both are on the increase in India amongst the 20 – 40 age range.

My cholesterol levels were apparently within the average for Surrey – 4.7, where 3 and below are safe levels, ie not considered dangerously high, so it is doubly mystifying as to why I had a heart attack at all since many of the usual risk factors were absent.

Right now, I’m in a period of rehabilitation, which can last up to 2 months, involving twice weekly physiotherapy and a close watch on my diet – and changing the way I work and for how long during the day. I will also have to take medication for the rest of my life in order to ensure that my cholesterol remains within safe levels, and to protect the titanium stent from future life-threatening blockages.

How recovering cardiac patients deal with the post-operative stage can vary from person to person – I spent the first 4 weeks following discharge, rewriting and revising a feature-film script someone had written with me in 2004, an indicator, perhaps, that I had a sudden and unexpected burst of energy after my angioplasty, but then I am, as I said before, an un-reformed workaholic – old habits die hard, but get replaced by new problematic ones - and this possibly, is the crux of the problem as far as how people deal with the factors that lead to chronic coronary heart disease. 

Leave a comment