Jamie Pollard's advice for healthy living after surviving a heart attack
It comes with the profession, says Jamie Pollard, Wellmark member and Iowa State University’s director of athletics since 2005. The demands. The expectations. The stress.
To have a successful athletics program, so much needs to fall in place. Some things you can control — many you cannot. Fans, alumni and donors — they want winners — season after season.
The stress had become a constant companion in Pollard’s life and career. In some ways, you could say he thrived in stressful situations. But in March 2015, a heart attack nearly took his life. It was a wake-up call that forced Pollard to stop and check his priorities.
“I want ISU to win. Do I ever! But, I can’t stress about it anymore. At least not as much as I used to.”
The day that changed things
Two weeks after his 50th birthday in March 2015, Pollard was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to watch his daughters run in a track meet at the UNI-Dome. Pollard had just watched his 16-year-old daughter, Annie, run in her first event. The two of them sat down to talk. That’s when the indigestion hit. “I just didn’t feel good,” says Pollard.
Next, it was cold sweats. Annie went to get her dad some water. When she came back, her dad’s face was pale and he was stretched across the bleachers. He told her to get the paramedics, who were on-site. Annie sprinted off as fast as she could.
“Lying on the bleachers, I felt as if I was vibrating,” says Pollard. “I knew I was in real trouble.”
When the paramedics got to Pollard, they put him on a stretcher and gave him glycerin and aspirin. He was conscious, processing the experience.
“You know, my first thought was, ‘This is embarrassing,’” remembers Pollard.
“It was surreal. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I just wanted to stay and watch my kids run.”
In the ambulance, Pollard was given an electrocardiogram (EKG). It confirmed that he had a heart attack.
After a night in a nearby hospital, Pollard learned he had an aortic dissection. This is a serious condition in which there is a tear in the wall of the major artery carrying blood out of the heart. Blood surges through the tear, causing the layers of the aorta to separate (dissect). It required immediate triple bypass surgery.
He was life-flighted to Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, where he had a successful surgery. He spent the next six weeks in recovery and rehabilitation.
It was in his genes
None of this should have been surprising, according to Pollard. His own father had a heart attack when he was in his 50s.
For good reason, Pollard thought he was in good health. “I don’t drink or smoke. I’ve been active my whole life. I ran track in college. “My whole family enjoys running and biking and just being competitive and active,” says Pollard.
He always assumed his father’s heart attack was environmental, since he worked in an auto shop and was around fumes all day. Turns out, his father’s heart condition was hereditary.
Following the heart attack, Pollard was forced to consider the other factors that led to the heart attack: exercise, diet and stress.
Exercise: It’s not a competition. It’s about the value of it.
Since his heart attack, many people have asked Pollard “Why should I waste my time working out? You’re so healthy. You work out hard. But, you had a heart attack anyway. What’s the point?”
Pollard’s answer is simple, “Because it’s important. If I hadn’t worked out, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Two days before the heart attack, Pollard had run six 800-meter intervals on his treadmill. It was hard, but he felt good.
“If I hadn’t been in the shape I was in, I would have died on the spot,” says Pollard. “Because of my fitness level, I was able to get through my ‘bad genes.’”
Today, Pollard is focusing less on being competitive and more on finding joy in activity. “After the heart attack, when I wasn’t able to exercise, it made me realize the joy of it. The joy of sweating. The joy of moving.”
In the past, being active was something I did because I was good at it. I didn't do it for the value of it. Before, the thought of someone passing me made me want to run faster and win. Now, I’m different. I’m out there because I love it. I’m out there because it’s good for me. I am focusing on consistency.
JAMIE POLLARD, ISU DIRECTOR OF ATHLETICS
A year ago, Pollard ran the Des Moines half marathon. “When I'm running, my mind is still 24 years old. I’m a competitor. But, when I saw a video of myself running? It was molasses,” he jokes. “In the moment, it’s fun to get those competitive juices flowing again; it feels good. I love the mental part of activity. Sure, I’m not breaking any records. I’m just learning to enjoy the accomplishment of doing it.”
Diet: I’ve learned to say "no."
When Pollard entered cardiac rehab, a dietitian came in and talked to him about all the changes he’d have to make to his diet. “No sodium. No this. No that,” says Pollard. “I thought, ‘I can’t eat anything again!’”
Pollard wants to make one thing clear: “I love to eat. Before the heart attack, everything was a special occasion to me. But, I always thought I was invincible. I never really thought about the damage I was doing to myself making unhealthy choices. I would tell myself, ‘I can run it off.’ Or, ‘I burn so much energy in my job, there’s no reason to worry.’”
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"The truth is, we do need to worry about it," says Pollard. “You see, I live with someone who puts the healthiest things on the table every day. I was aware of what was good and what was bad. Yet, I indulged far too often.”
Pollard says moderation is something he has had to learn since the heart attack. “I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to certain foods. You don’t have to be absolute,” he adds. “But, you do need to recognize the choices you make. There are always trade-offs.”
Stress: “I’m wired for it.”
“You see, I’m wired to be stressed. Even on my best day, I’d find a way to be stressed. It would be a lie to say I’ve changed. I will always struggle with this aspect of my life,” says Pollard.
Yet, he has vowed to curb his stress levels. “That was my number one goal,” he says. “And, the first item on my list to ward off stress? Well, I swore off chat rooms.”
Pollard would argue that how you react to stress may be one of the biggest causes of heart attacks. “There are a lot of things that cause the arteries to swell up. Stress is one of them. “Today, I really try to understand those moments when I have to dial it back. From that standpoint, I’ve come a long way.”
“When ISU wins, everyone goes home happy. They return to their lives. If they lose, the complaints come rolling in. The lines are too long, the hot chocolate too cold, the parking lot jammed, the uniforms are the wrong color.” For this reason, stress levels are particularly difficult to control during football games.
“Believe me. No one wants a win more than me. When things aren’t going well, I have become keenly aware of my stress levels. Now, I’ll tell myself ‘It’s just a football game, someone is going to win, someone is going to lose.’ So, last year, when the Hawkeyes came back to beat us in the last quarter, I had to keep reminding myself that it really is just a game.”
A message for men
Pollard’s message for men is simple. “If you want to feel better and avoid a health event that either takes your life or leaves you debilitated, you really need to do the work. Seriously, put your game face on. If it seems like too big a task, take small steps. Choose to be active. Choose the right foods. And, choose a perspective that helps you keep your stress in check."
Many of the health problems we face today are preventable, if we make the right choices. “Be the guy who makes smart choices,” says Pollard. “Be the guy who follows through.”
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When Pollard is tempted to stray from his goals, he thinks about how he felt after finishing the 2017 Des Moines half marathon. “I felt so good about myself. It wasn’t my personal best. But that guy — the one who survived a heart attack three years ago? Well, he just finished a 13.1-mile road race. I want to be that guy.”
This article originally appeared in Wellmark's Blue magazine. Get stories to inspire you, tips for healthy living and understanding health insurance, plus exclusive videos you can't find anywhere else.