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Stephen’s Heart Attack Close Call

December 10, 2012 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Like so many of my patients, Stephen was doing everything he could to stay healthy. He exercised nearly every day, quit smoking, cleaned up his diet, and devoted time for meditation every day to reduce stress. In the eight years I had known him, Stephen had made tremendous strides, losing more than 50 pounds and getting his high cholesterol well under control. As a side benefit of all his hard work, Stephen inspired his wife and several friends to follow his lead.

But despite all his efforts, Stephen had not been able to convince his parents to make similar lifestyle changes. Both his mother and father were overweight, and neither one would exercise, improve eating habits, or make any other lifestyle changes, even though they applauded the improvements in their son. When his mother, Gladys, complained of being tired on Christmas morning, everyone assumed she had simply done too much and needed to rest. So while the family cleaned up the dinner dishes and put everything away, Gladys napped on the recliner. But the nap didn’t reinvigorate her as it usually did.

As the day wore on, she became increasingly uncomfortable but insisted it was just indigestion and refused to go to the hospital. Then she became sick to her stomach, so the family wondered if she had food poisoning. No one else became sick, though, so the family was at a loss about what to do. Finally, Gladys reported pain in her back and arms, and several family members recognized the classic heart attack symptoms. Stephen bundled her up and whisked her off to the emergency room.

Unfortunately, it was too late. Gladys had a serious heart attack; and although the doctors were able to stabilize her briefly, a second heart attack that day proved fatal.

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A few months later, Stephen came to see me for another issue and tearfully told me the story. “After Mom passed away, I did some research and learned that we did everything wrong. We waited too long to get her to the doctor. We didn’t give her an aspirin right away, and we didn’t call the paramedics, who could have helped her right away.”

I assured him that the same scene plays out thousands of times during the holidays with people who are reluctant to leave festivities. “That’s a terribly hard lesson to learn, Stephen, but you did the best you could, and that’s all anyone can do when the other person refuses to go to the doctor,” I told him.

The silver lining to Stephen’s story is that a year or so later, he was able to save the life of a coworker who was experiencing similar symptoms. “He didn’t want to go to the emergency room, either, because he was working on a project that was due that day. But this time, I just ignored him and called 91l. The paramedics were there in a couple of minutes, and he survived. In fact, he’s doing great. It’s remarkable what a huge difference a little knowledge about heart attacks can make.”

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