A Heart Attack at 34: The inspirational story of Louie Felix.
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Hi, my name is Louie and I only eat plants. Has it always been this way? Well, heck no! You see, like most people my age (45), I pretty much ate whatever was put in front of me and did what I was supposed to do…”clean your plate!”. Growing up in a single parent household in the “hood” that meant a lot of pre-packaged foods like TV dinners, boxed sugary cereals, chef Boyardee’s, bologna sandwiches and lots of hot dogs! Not only was that the norm, I am Hispanic, so we ate lots of refried beans, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and probably had meat at every sit down meal. Also, everything probably started with a big dab of lard and smothered with tons of cheese! With that being said, I am grateful because I was never hungry and this is just how it was.
Even though this is the way I ate, I still grew up fairly “healthy” maybe a little chunky, but I was still able bodied, and unlike the rest of my brothers and sister I played sports. To be more exact, I played baseball and football and was a better than average ball player. I was picked to be on the all star team several times and was chosen to be captain on many of those teams. My love of sports in those early years led me into high school where I was an All City, All League Tight-end/ Linebacker with the hopes of playing in college and dreaming of the NFL or MLB. As the years flew by I continued through high school but being the first to graduate from high school in my family of six kids (I’m the second to the youngest) I really had no guidance on what I was supposed to do. I did eventually figure some things out and ended up playing at the Junior college level for a couple years before deciding not to transfer to a four year school to finish my education and I went to work in the construction industry as a heavy equipment operator.
So now I am 21 years old making tons of money, dating my future wife and thinking about serious things like raising a family and buying a house…. oh did I mention I was eating everything in sight even off of the “roach coach” (before catering trucks were cool). So the years crept by, I gained a bunch of weight even though I was hanging onto my love of sports by playing in every adult league sport I could think of (baseball, softball, flag football, and even basketball). That lasted for several years before I started to feel burnt out and regretted my earlier decision not to continue my education. By this time I was also hanging onto any fitness with a gym routine and “clean” eating plan of protein, carbs, and veggies (but not very strict).
It’s now 1998. I’ve been out of high school almost 10 years and I’m 5’11” and weighing around 240lbs. Man that was tough to swallow. It wasn’t until a good friend I worked with invited me to go on a mountain bike ride. I had never done that before and after that day I probably didn’t stop for about 3 years! I was in love with another sport that guided many of my decisions from that point on. I soon developed a passion for racing mountain bikes and got into real shape by following the “The Zone” diet and lots of riding! I was having so much fun racing and I even moved onto road riding and triathlons. The high point of racing bikes was when I started doing Xterra off-road triathlons and qualified for the 2001 National Championships and eventually the World Championships in Maui! I ended up middle of the pack but it was all worth it and I came to a point where I needed to take a break.
I was still working as an equipment operator and I was still really frustrated with what I chose as a career, so I put myself back in school. For the next couple of years, it was family (we had a second child by this time), work, and school. So you can only imagine what the eating was like…Grab ‘n’ go! I eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership and landed an office job for a drilling company as an Estimator/ Project manager. I did this for a couple years and my eating habits were still horrible, I went from a 180lbs racing machine back to 210lbs office slug. I was so disappointed, so much that I decided to quit that job and go back into the field to get my head back on straight.
I was 34 and so far removed from racing bikes but I was determined to get back in shape, and that’s what I did. I was doing everything I knew, even playing in an adult tackle football league! And that’s when it happened…
August 24, 2006 started out like any other day for the past 11 years. I had a four A.M. wake up and shower, threw on one of my usual work t-shirts, blue jeans and my work boots, grabbed a bite to eat and headed out the door. From the shop, I jumped in the work truck and headed to the job site. As I was driving along I started to feel a cramping sensation in my middle back, I thought, “it’s nothing, I need to stretch it out” so I kept driving and then all of a sudden got this cold sweat and thought, “I must be getting the flu.” I pulled over at the gas station started pumping gas and then got very nauseous, I thought, “something’s not right, I need to go home.”
I called my wife, and she came to take me to the hospital. Once in the ER, even though I was having all the symptoms of having a heart attack, no one would say that was happening. I was 34 years old and fit (not your classic heart attack patient), but that’s exactly what was happening. A few hours later I was waking up from receiving my first stent to open up my occluded right coronary artery. Two months later 2 more stents were put in place for two other partial blockages. My life would never be the same.
My thought initially was, “my life is over.” How would I support my family? How can I be there for my kids? Could I ever be active again? I had so many more questions with no apparent answers. I went through many stages of sadness, anger, and fear and was very depressed. Ultimately, I came to grips with what happened and knew I had to persevere not only for myself but for my wife and kids. This was not an easy task considering the lack of information out there for heart attack survivors like me (young and athletic). I made a full physical recovery. I was soon working with no restrictions, coaching my kid’s teams, and competing in local small races again.
I did all this by doing what my doctors told me to do, limit my red meat consumption, take my medication, and exercise. My biggest concern with this plan was that I was going to be on medication the rest of my life and I feared what the long term effect would be. I kept digging up information and I eventually read the book “Reversing Heart Disease” by Dean Ornish. This is where my Plant-based journey actually began.
I did not follow Dr. Ornish’s program but I did end up cutting out all red meat, then white meat and eventually became vegetarian. I had made peace with not eating meat but still didn’t think dairy was bad so I just kept doing what I was doing. Over the next couple of years of being vegetarian, still taking meds with my blood work profile and checkups all good, life was good again. I was alive! Grateful for life and even regained a passion for racing again. I was my pushing limits again 5k, 10k, MTB racing, and Xterras. The one event I wasn’t really into but told myself I wanted to do before I was 40 was an Ironman distance race. I was now 37 so I had time and so went the training. Miles upon miles of training, swimming, cycling, and running and all on a vegetarian diet! Life was good, I was super healthy and fit as can be and then BOOM! Like the heart attack out of nowhere I had all these strange sensations in my body with an elevated heart rate at rest. I was so scared, I thought I was having another heart attack and eventually ended up in the hospital. My cardiologist even went back into my arteries to make sure the stent’s had not collapsed. After a few days in the hospital, I was released with no apparent answers except that it must have been an anxiety/ panic attack. I was told to try and relax a little, ‘drink a glass of wine” and “have a burger every once in a while” This was so discouraging, no answers and no Ironman. I was so depressed and beat, I eventually did what the doctor ordered and had some wine, ate a burger, and took my meds. The sad thing is that since I went down the rabbit hole that is anxiety, I’ve tried everything to battle that. I’ve seen a therapist, taken anti -depressants for a couple years, practice all kinds of relaxation techniques and I even resumed a standard American diet. Talk about low point in life, but I figured those were the cards I was dealt.
Fast forward, this year is my 11th year as a survivor, and I’ve experienced lots of ups and downs over that time. I would follow a plant based diet, and then I would “fall off the wagon”, and then just eat chicken and fish (I even tried paleo!), but still take my statin. All my blood work numbers would fluctuate up and down but still be within range. The sad thing is I was eating this way to try and ease my anxiety instead of treating the real problem I have, heart disease. I’m still not exactly sure what’s caused the exaggerated anxiety/panic, but I now suspect it’s the statin. So it’s been my focus to possibly get off of them and continue my fight with heart disease.
The biggest difference between now and 11 years ago is that the plant based movement has grown exponentially. There are tons of resources out there to help someone make a conscious decision. There are all kinds of people with all sorts of backgrounds, like doctors, scientists, scholars, athletes, etc., all advocating a plant-based diet because the proof is out there. My aim is to be part of the proof as well as a resource to help ‘bridge the gap”. That’s why I’ve resumed a whole food plant based diet, continued to be active and challenge myself physically, choosing a career path in a Vegan café as well as being a personal trainer in my spare time, all in hopes to motivate and inspire people to choose a healthier lifestyle without chronic disease.