Image Credit: Jeff Breece
Jeff Breece enjoying a hike as he strives to find hope and joy after surviving a heart attack

The Fires of Hope: Life after a Heart Attack

Reading time | 5 mins

One minute I was hiking along the trail, backpack snug upon my shoulders. The next, my boot, ankle, and leg got sucked into the thick boggy mud until I sank in past my knee. Squish-suck-slosh! 

With effort, I was able to pull my leg out of the muck, but I lost my hiking boot in the process. I went in after it, mud climbing up to my elbow. It took all my arm strength to get it back. 

But once I retrieved my prize, I smiled as I pulled it back onto my foot. I thought about how lucky I was to be hiking through the wilderness. 

Losing hope can feel like that - like losing a boot or something you need to keep going. Regaining that hope takes strength, willpower and, sometimes, help.

Having many different feelings is normal

This post is about my struggle as a heart attack survivor. More importantly, it's about how I kept (and keep) my hope alive as the world slowly emerges from a global pandemic.

The Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia
The Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia

Sitting in my home office for the last year has left me with a lot of time to think about, well, everything. 

I'm in a mixed state. I am grateful because I can live and work at home. Many people don't have that luxury. 

I also feel grief. Grief for what people have lost due to the coronavirus. Grief for the economic collapse. Grief for, and it seems years ago now, the backlash the Civil Rights protestors faced.

The last year has been a particularly volatile time. It's a lot to take in stride while trying to maintain balance, calm and emotional stability

Hope is a choice

My choice to remain hopeful takes a lot of work. After my heart attack, I had to brainstorm some techniques. 

I use breathing exercises, focus on sleep, and keep a routine that supports my physical and mental health. Yet, there were times when routine and breathing techniques weren't enough. 

It was in one of those moments when I knew this was going to involve choice. We can choose to become overwhelmed with grief, or we can, while processing those emotions and not blocking them off, turn our focus towards hope. 

I keep hope alive by trekking in the woods. You may do something else. Running, perhaps, or needlepoint, board games, cooking or just talking with people. We all use activities, like our hobbies, to heal and restore our emotional balance.

Hope means you won't feel defeated, no matter what life throws at you

I had so many plans for last year. I wanted to take at least two backpacking trips every month. I planned on doing lots of leg and endurance training for mountain climbing in the summer. 

I also ached to get on a motorcycle and hit the road, meeting like-minded people on the way. The kind of friends who enjoy getting dirty outdoors and taking multi-day walks, wading through streams, eating around a campfire, and sleeping under the stars. 

Honestly, I meant to reset my entire lifestyle. I was planning on making massive changes to achieve my goals, including my first thorough hike. 

To date, I have hiked 100 miles over six days only once. The rest of my trips have been two to four-day hikes. I was thinking about doing a 45-day trek on the West Coast. I would take time off work and let loose, embracing a more outdoor, untethered lifestyle while still having the health to do it

During my marathon-running days, we used to have a saying: "I run today because someday I won't be able to."

Wayne national Forest, Ohio
Wayne national Forest, Ohio

Finding the “hidden gifts” of surviving heart disease

We all have challenges as heart attack survivors. Some of us suffer a lot after our first heart attack, and it's hard to adjust. My world was turned on its head. 

I used to lift weights at the gym five or six days a week. I was progressing onto heavier and heavier loads, hitting my fitness goals. Then I had what's called a "widow-maker" heart attack. I was sent home with a bag of medication and a stent in my heart. 

I was apparently at "low risk" for a heart attack, but it happened anyway. I lost my joy in going to the gym and stopped doing the squats and deadlifts I loved. 

Instead, I learned to enjoy endurance activities like running and hiking. Just as one of my aunts said: "When life takes something away, it usually leaves a hidden gift in its place." 

Running races gave me a chance to reconnect with the outdoors. At the time, I was grateful for the calm it brought me. Running and hiking gave me real feelings of hope every day of the week. I knew I'd have to manage my heart condition all my life, but I felt free from fear for the first time. I had focus, and therefore I had joy. 

These feelings were the "gifts" my heart attack gave me. You may have found something different, but the way we redefine ourselves is what counts.

Some people refer to life after a heart attack as "the new normal". I think we should see ourselves as survivors who want to embrace life to the full again. 

Working towards our goals, no matter what they are

Unfortunately, all my plans got scrapped due to COVID-19, so I had to put my head towards achieving my goals differently.

I scanned the state I live in for "quieter" trails and state parks without much foot traffic. I've been going to these places every weekend, respecting the need for social distancing.

I always have a "go pack" ready and stashed in my truck. All I need to do is grab my small utility bag, some food and water and hit the road. I pitch the tent, light a campfire, listen to the sounds of the woods at night, and watch the stars come out.

Trips like these have been my biggest mood lifters during a strange year, where loneliness is rife for many of us.

Jeff Breece's idea of the perfect Saturday night therapy session.
Jeff Breece's idea of the perfect Saturday night therapy session.

I trust in hope

My next post will carry on with this theme of hope. Hope is more important than ever and vital for our mental health. You'll be getting some stories on how I train for half-marathons as a heart attack survivor!

Keep going! We can all get through this.

NPS-IE-NP-00311 July 2021