Through a commitment to quick action and cardiac rehabilitation, George restored his heart health to live his happily-ever-after with his new wife.

Your Health | 3 months ago

How a Newlywed Recovered Fully from a "Widow Maker" Heart Attack

Through a commitment to quick action and cardiac rehabilitation, this patient restored his heart health to live his happily-ever-after with his new wife.

George Washington, III, like many, had an incredibly difficult 2020. He lost his father to COVID-19 and then battled the virus himself for three brutal weeks. Last fall, George’s eyes were on the future, as a newlywed looking forward to sharing his life with his new wife. Then one morning last September, he experienced severe chest pain and began to sweat. Even though this regular runner doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone likely to have cardiac problems, he knew: This was a heart attack.

George made two decisions that were crucial in protecting his heart – and saving his life. First, 911 was called immediately. Secondly, he followed his hospital stay with cardiac rehab.

Because of both, George can share his story to ensure that other people save their hearts, too.

Quick Action Saves Hearts – Even During a Pandemic

George didn’t wait. Five minutes after the 911 call, the ambulance arrived, and paramedics made the diagnosis: a heart attack with 100% blockage, sometimes called a “widow-maker.” Four minutes later, the ambulance pulled up to the hospital with George.

“Because George came to the emergency room quickly, we were able to get the artery open. He’s recovered to the point where his heart basically has no damage,” says John Cedarholm, MD, George’s cardiologist at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and medical director of cardiac rehabilitation. “If he had delayed coming to the emergency room, he may have died or he certainly would have had permanent damage to his heart.”

Encouraging people to seek prompt medical attention has become a challenge during COVID-19. Some people falsely believe that staying out of a hospital is safer than going to a hospital to get the care they need. This misconception costs lives. According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology,  the rate of deaths due to ischemic heart disease rose by 11% in 2020, and it rose by 17% due to hypertensive heart disease.

“During the COVID pandemic, people are petrified to go to the hospital, so they'll sit at home and tough out a heart attack,” says Dr. Cedarholm, MD. “We encourage people: If you’re having chest pains, call 911 or get to an emergency room. We will take care of you. You will be a priority.”

Hospitals – like all Atrium Health facilities – offer COVID-safe care. That means that protections are put in place to protect patients and staff from COVID-19 exposure, including proper PPE, distancing and disinfectant protocols.

Cardiac Rehab Offers a Safe, Effective Recovery

After his heart attack, Dr. Cedarholm encouraged George to begin cardiac rehab. After people experience a serious heart event – including a heart attack, open-heart surgery or angioplasty – rehab makes a big difference. The CDC estimates that people who have had heart attacks can lower the risk of death from heart-related causes by more than 50% by completing a cardiac rehab program.

“People that do cardiac rehab just plain do better than people that don't,” says Dr. Cedarholm, MD. “They're less likely to be readmitted to the hospital, and they get back to normal life much quicker.”

Cardiac rehab enables recovery through a multidisciplinary approach: part education, part exercise. Cardiac rehab teaches patients how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle, offering insight on diet, activity, medication, emotional health and more. It also shows patients how to exercise after a heart event. Nurses give each patient a long-term exercise program suitable for them, and they monitor those exercises to ensure safety.

"By having observed, controlled exercise, you are less likely to not do enough or to push too hard. One time, they had to slow me down; my heart rate was over 160,” George says. “They're monitoring you and know the limits you should observe due to enduring some heart damage. It is worth it to have that observation and be around people who know what this is like."

Being at cardiac rehab also introduced George to others who were in similar situations. He found camaraderie there among others who have similar exercise and diet priorities. As they pursued exercise programs together, they’d chat college sports and make it fun.

The Steps to Recovering Heart Health

Recovering from a heart attack requires two things: quick action and lasting change. Because George committed to both, he now has a heart with virtually no damage – and is creating plans with his new wife and their new life together.

"Without Dr. Cedarholm and his team, I would have died. I would have lived for one and a half months under the same roof with my wife. That's all it would have been,” George says. “Without them, I wouldn’t get the life that we're supposed to have together. From Dr. Cedarholm to everyone that attended while I was in the hospital, to the nurses at rehab, they all made a difference."

Cupid’s Cup: Ensuring Cardiac Rehab for Those Who Need It

Everyone who needs cardiac rehab deserves to have cardiac rehab. But for some, it’s a financial obligation that’s out of reach.

That’s the reason behind the Cupid’s Cup 5k and 1 Mile Walk. The Cupid’s Cup is a fundraiser that creates scholarships to those who don’t have insurance or who have very high deductibles. It allows these patients to get cardiac rehab services at Atrium Health Pineville, Atrium Health SouthPark and Atrium Health Union.

This year’s race will look a little different than the usual group race. In 2021, participants can run or walk the race wherever they are – around the block, through a park, wherever – anytime between February 7 and 14. Registration fees support the recovery of patients who are recovering from major heart events.

If you join the Cupid’s Cup this year, know that you’ll be participating – virtually – alongside someone else who cares deeply for this program. George has registered for the race, and he’s planning to run it.

"I have to look at like this: I was not ready. It's not over. I had two life threatening situations in six months, and there's still stuff for me to do. I'm not done yet,” George says. “I look to the future - I always have."


Support the heart health of those in our community! Register for the 2021 Cupid’s Cup 5k and 1 Mile Walk.

Learn more about cardiac rehabilitation services at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.