After two workouts and a 30-minute run last November, John Shultz sat on his porch steps with his dogs waiting for his wife, Angela. She had decided to join them in their walk — something she didn’t always do but which probably saved Shultz’s life.
Shultz, 49, noticed a little pain in his chest, nothing alarming, though. Driving through Danville, the pain increased. When they got to the park he sat on a bench, sweating and in pain.
“Are you OK?” Angela asked.
“No,” Shultz answered. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
Ironically, Shultz is a cardiac nurse at Geisinger Medical Center. While Angela rushed him to the ER, he leaned his head out of the window “like a dog,” trying to cool off in the 32-degree weather.
At Geisinger’s emergency department, Shultz could barely walk. Technicians rushed to do tests while Shultz, now in intense pain, longed for nitroglycerin. He heard someone call a “STEMI” alert, which is an ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI), a very serious heart attack sometimes referred to as “the widow maker.” In a state of denial, he didn’t think they were referring to him.
He remembers putting his left arm down for a procedure, “and then it just went dark.” His heart had stopped.
“I was calm. I was pain free. Nothing bothered me,” he said. “I felt fine.”
Doctors shocked him with a life pack, performed two minutes of CPR, shocked him again, performed two more minutes of CPR then shocked him a third time.
“The third shock was the equivalent of a horse kicking me in the chest and getting electrocuted at the same time,” Shultz said.
He sat upright. He was alive again.
From there he remembers his manager bending over and telling him, “You’ll be OK, John,” as a medical team rushed him to the catheter lab.
“I remember the ceiling tiles just flying by because they were running from the ER,” he said.
Doctors found a 100 percent blockage of one of Shultz’s arteries. The cause was an acute plaque rupture.
“He had an ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction,” said Sandy Green, MD, associate interventional cardiology at the Cardiovascular Center for Clinical Research, Geisinger Medical Center. “That’s where one of the pipes in your heart gets fully blocked by, essentially, the gunk that’s sitting in the walls of your arteries. That gunk broke off and completely occluded the artery that runs down the front of his heart, which is the left anterior descending (LAD). In the old days they used to call it the widow maker.
“Even though he was a young guy and was relatively healthy, he had a heart attack that in the old days would have killed him.”
Doctors inserted a stent into Shultz’s artery — he felt better enough afterward to sit up and move from the stretcher to a bed. He was sent to the cardiac ICU, ironically the department where he works. Within a matter of 48 hours he was sent home, where he tried to rest for about 10 days.
“I get bored easily,” he said, admitting that he did run the vacuum cleaner that week. “I actually felt worse from the influenza (which he had in 2016) than I did from the heart attack.”
Warning signs for even a serious heart attack like Shultz’s can be subtle and easily put off.
“The funny thing with men is, they frequently have symptoms and they don’t do anything about them,” Green said. “They get short of breath or have a little twinge, and instead of actually getting something done about it, what they’ll do is they’ll sort of ignore it and they’ll change their behavior.”
Chest discomfort, including pain or pressure, is the most well-known warning sign. Others include nausea, indigestion, heartburn, or stomach pain, pain or tingling in the arm, dizziness, shortness of breath, throat or jaw pain, sweating and getting easily tired.
“No one in that age group and no one that healthy thinks, ‘Hey, I’m the one who’s going to have a heart attack,’” Green said. “So when young, healthy men get symptoms, what they tend to do is ignore them.”
With any new or different issues, seek medical attention, Green said. That doesn’t necessarily mean going to the ER. Just be sure to talk with a physician.
Now, two months after his heart attack, Shultz has made some changes to his life. Always a fan of sports and exercise, he continues to run and work out. He had a relatively healthy diet, did not smoke and maintained a normal body weight. His only warning for heart problems: family history. His father had a heart attack at age 48.
Shultz takes cholesterol and blood pressure medications as well as a daily aspirin and Brilinta, to keep the stent open.
“My diet wasn’t bad to begin with, but I eat more veggies, more chicken, low-fat pasta,” he said. “I’m reading a lot of labels. You learn a lot from reading the labels.”
Where he used to have a beer or two daily and maybe a Long Island Iced Tea, he now has perhaps one drink a week, which has helped him lose some weight.
“To be honest, I feel a hundred percent better without multiple drinks a week,” he said.
People joke with him, asking, “What’s the afterlife like?”
All he can tell them is that his experience was “peaceful.” He’s back to working overtime hours, exercising, walking his dogs and enjoying life.
“Even when I walk the dogs and it’s a super cold day, if the sun’s out, you’ve got to turn and just, aah, let the sun hit you in the face. Appreciate it,” he said. “Even the cold weather lets you know you’re alive.”