As a 34-year-old Type A aviation architect consulting on international projects, Oscar Martin was living the good life and feeling immortal. However, the proverbial heart attack was waiting to happen. The only physical symptom he had was a severe pain in his left palm.
That pain and some tests were enough to land him in the hospital for a critical operation despite his young age.
“I was the youngest patient in the cardiac care unit (CCU),” said Martin about his stay in the hospital where he received five heart bypasses.
Twenty-three years later, Martin, Capital Planning, Project and Design Standards workplace section chief in the TSA Real Estate Management Division recalled telling his heart surgeon he loved sunning at the beach, and he didn’t want a ghastly scar down his chest.
“I need a beautiful line,” quipped the younger Martin, echoing his youthful vanity in the serious, life-altering moment.
The last thing he remembered before being wheeled into surgery was seeing his friend’s face. The first thing he remembered after waking up was asking his friend why he was wearing a different shirt. It took days for Martin to recover in the CCU, and he didn’t realize time had passed.
While his palm pain wasn’t the universal clutch-your-chest kind of symptom associated with heart attacks, Martin’s family medical history was classic. His father and three uncles all died of cardiac issues long before his bypasses.
“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and causes about 20% of all U.S. deaths,” said TSA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Fabrice Czarnecki.
Happily, Martin didn’t add to that grim statistic and lived to sunbathe again. His scar is noticeable because of complications after surgery, but he refuses to let that stop him from going to the beach. He has, however, made significant lifestyle changes.
“My grandparents emigrated from Spain to Puerto Rico where they ran a restaurant,” Martin fondly recalled with a mile-wide grin.
The blissful memory of comfort meals heavy with fried foods and carbs still lingers, but he’s intentionally cut that kind of diet out of his meal rotation. He now regulates his portions and concentrates on white meats, fish and vegetables.
“Oscar’s story showcases that we can all take positive steps to promote and restore cardiovascular health,” said Nurse Practitioner and TSA Health Unit Manager Dawn McCarthy. “Knowing your personal risk factors and talking with your healthcare provider is also key.”
Martin’s craving for a sumptuous meal paired with a good wine is still there, as is his Type A personality, but he’s worked hard to educate himself on modifying his behaviors and walks the walk of health – most of the time. When he strays, he acknowledges it and quickly walks himself back to good habits.
As one of the architects who worked on the design of the TSA headquarters building opened during the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin still deals with work-life balance and stress but manages it better today.
“You see life differently when you go through one of these events,” said Martin.
“Heart disease is preventable,” reminded Czarnecki. “A 2014 study of 20,000 Swedish men found that a combination of five healthy behaviors could prevent 79% of heart attacks – a healthy diet, physical activity, no smoking, moderate alcohol consumption and a waist size under 37.4 inches.”
“By living a healthy and active lifestyle, you can help keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels normal and lower your risk for heart disease and heart attack,” said McCarthy.
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs