Last summer, Chris Daily started experiencing odd symptoms. His left hand tingled and he seemed to have acid reflux. Days after the tingling started, he learned he had massive blockage in his heart so serious that in October 2020 he received a brand new heart. He’s sharing his story to warn others to seek help when they feel ill.
“I was raised in an era that when you fell down and scraped your knee you were told to get back up,” the 59-year-old consultant told TODAY. “As a guy, you don’t typically go to the doctor … When I went, it was extraordinary for me. If I wouldn’t have gone, I would have let it go and had the (heart attacks) at home.”
Tingling hands indicate a big problem
Daily was walking his dog when his left hand started tingling. He put the leash in his right hand and flexed his left hand and kept walking, thinking little of it. Two days later, he felt some chest pain that seemed like acid reflux.
“It wasn’t overbearing or debilitating. It was just a pain in my chest,” he explained.
When medications didn’t work, he went to the emergency room. The nurse asked COVID-19 screening questions, including whether he was having a hard time breathing, and they immediately suspected he had the virus. They gave him a COVID-19 test, which was negative, but they thought it was a false negative.
“In their minds, they thought I was a COVID patient and they figured out that I had a heart attack,” he said.
While at the hospital, his heart sped up rapidly. Soon, doctors learned that the left side of his heart was completely blocked and he was at the beginning of heart failure. They recommended he try a LifeVest, a wearable device that shocks the heart if it stops or beats out of sync. When his insurance declined to cover it, he paid for it out of pocket.
“It was the prudent thing to do,” Daily said. “Why should we take that risk?”
It was a smart move: In the middle of September, he passed out and the LifeVest shocked him awake. Three days later, it happened again. After that incident, he was admitted to the hospital.
“When I woke up this time, they were doing compressions on my heart,” Daily said.
About 10 days later, the vest shocked him again.
“My heart went crazy and it was fluttering and they couldn’t get control of that. They put me on an (ECMO machine) and put me on the transplant list,” he said.
While his parents didn’t have a history of heart disease, he soon learned that his great grandparents experienced heart attacks.
“I had no signs whatsoever. The only medical challenge is that I had a CPAP machine (for sleep apnea),” he said.
Signs of heart attack and heart disease
“The symptoms of heart disease or heart attack are sometimes very obvious like crushing chest pain or pain that is like an elephant sitting on the chest … especially if they are brought on with activity,” Dr. Roopa Rao, a cardiologist who specializes in transplants and heart failure at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, where Daily was treated, told TODAY. “Unfortunately, sometimes these signs could be subtle, like heartburn.”
While women are more likely to have atypical symptoms, Rao encourages people to call their doctor if they have even minor symptoms that linger.
“If something is not right — especially if you have risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, it runs in your family — it can be wise to call a doctor,” she said.
But Rao also said it’s important for people to consider their heart health even before they have symptoms. She recommends annual physicals that include blood pressure checks and blood tests to make sure blood sugar and cholesterol are within healthy ranges.
“I really feel like when people start thinking about their heart health after they already had heart disease,” she said. “It’s important to prevent it.”
She recommends people eat healthy diets, low in salt and saturated fats, and exercise 30 minutes a day five days a week.
“You can change your life,” she said. “Doing it as early as you can will have an impact later in life.”
Life with a new heart
On Oct. 2, doctors learned that a heart that matched Daily was available and he underwent transplant surgery. To him, that’s like his new birthday.
“Early on, my wife and I accepted the fact that this was going to be a long journey. Instead of dwelling on the past and what could have been, I was always focusing on what’s next? What do I have to do to get through this?” Daily said.
While Daily has gone through cardiac rehabilitation and it helped him improve, he still faces challenges at times.
“I am recovering pretty well. Of course, I am not where I want to be,” he said. “I still struggle with stairs.”
The experience has caused Daily to reexamine his life and he says he plans to ditch his workaholic tendencies.
“We’re reevaluating our lifestyle to make it less stressful,” he said. “I want to figure out what my purpose is. Why am I here and why am I getting a second chance?”
But he feels overwhelming gratitude. He knows his new heart arrived because another family faced a great loss.
“There was a medical emergency, my heart attack, and a tragedy that got us here. There was a donor who had a tragedy and a family had to make a very difficult decision,” he said. “Without that decision I wouldn’t be here.”