Tim Russert’s Heart Attack: Was He Our Canary in the Coal Mine?

Since the shocking death of political commentator Tim Russert a few days ago, we have seen a huge outpouring of love and respect for this man who was so admired. I admired him, too, but this post is not about what his life taught us, but about what his death taught us.

Many of us with atrial fibrillation also have heart disease. Even those with lone atrial fibrillation may be at risk for heart disease. Thus this story hits close to home for many of us even though it’s not about atrial fibrillation.

We were shocked that Tim Russert was taken from us at age 58. Why, and how could that happen to one so young? Why couldn’t he have been saved?

While heart attack symptoms for men are usually overt, and for women subtle, there are some men for whom the symptoms are subtle as well. So for many of us, a heart attack is the first recognizable symptom. He may have had subtle symptoms that could have saved him had they been recognized and acted on in timethat’s how I had a different outcomebut maybe not as it’s not always possible.

We’ve since heard from Tim’s doctor that an autopsy showed that he had coronary artery disease and an enlarged heart, which is often a by-product of the heart having to work too hard. A cholesterol plaque ruptured an artery, caused a clot, and led to his death.

His coronary artery disease was being treated with medication and exercise, but medication doesn’t generally reverse significant heart disease and you have to question whether he was able to find time to exercise with his intense job.

He had just had a good stress test, too. Of course, passing a stress test is no guarantee of good heart healthit’s a reasonable screening test, but it’s only accurate at indicating heart disease in about 2/3 of men and only 1/3 of women.

Interestingly, Tim had just come back from a trip to Italy with his family to celebrate son Luke’s college graduation. Some doctor blogs have suggested this as a possible source of a clot. This hit home for me because my very first episode of atrial fibrillation was just a few days after my own long flight back from Italy. I had artery clots (not vein clots from “economy class syndrome”) and a close call with stroke. Tim’s trip to Italy could have played a role.

To me it seems that Tim’s intensity and relentlessly high standards drove him to literally work himself to death, the same as what almost happened to me. His colleague, Tom Brokaw, said, “He worked to the point of exhaustion so many weeks.” That sure sounds familiar.

It didn’t help that his role in “Meet the Press” was to confront. And the media business is stressfulalways on deadline and always trying to scoop the other media. The stress on Tim’s face told us that he was a heart attack waiting to happen.

Is Tim Russert the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the media? There are so many heart attacks just waiting to happen there. In one particularly heated Fox News debate about immigration, Bill O’Reilly was so angry that the veins on his face popped outI thought he would have a heart attack or stroke right there. His sparring partner, Geraldo Rivera, appeared equally angry and at risk. Come on, guys, take it easy! It’s not worth a heart attack!

The media isn’t the only occupation at riskthere are many other high-stress occupations as well.

What about you? Will this be a reality check for you? If you need to, will you make changes that will save your own life?

Heart attacks can be prevented. Eating right, exercising, managing the insidious stress that hijacks healthy habits, getting enough sleep, and taking proactive control of your healththe HEART Program’s five simple stepssaved my life and could have saved Tim’s, too.

If you need help, there are many books out there (including my own). Just do something to save your own life.

It was so easy to like and admire Tim, and he really made us think. He was always influencing and teaching us. May he influence and teach us in death just as he did in life.

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