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Surviving a ‘widow maker’ heart attack

February 23, 2018

Gary Swanson remembers every minute of October 3, 2017. He can still smell the diesel exhaust from the ambulance and hear the voices of emergency caregivers as they worked to save his life.

“You get up, eat breakfast and go to work,” Swanson said. “You never think the day will end the way it did.”

It was a Tuesday, and Swanson, a forester, was at work in Chippewa National Forest near Cass Lake, Minn., when he suddenly started having chest pain.

He was working on a stressful project with a looming deadline, so at first he thought the pain in the middle of his back was stress. He tried to relax, but when the pain didn’t go away, Swanson knew it was more than anxiety.

“I walked into an adjacent office and told a co-worker, ‘I’m having a heart attack, can you drive me to the hospital?’” Swanson said.

A blood clot was completely blocking a crucial artery in Swanson’s heart, restricting a large portion of the blood supply. The 65-year-old was having a heart attack known as the “widow maker” despite him having no history of heart disease and overall good health.

He asked a coworker to drive him the 20 miles from Cass Lake to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. As soon as Swanson got into the car he said, “I’m not going to make it, take me to the clinic, just a couple blocks away from the office.” There they called for an ambulance.

Within a few minutes, the ambulance arrived and sped off toward the Bemidji hospital. On the way, Swanson remembers being in tremendous pain that couldn’t be quelled by three doses of nitroglycerin. The paramedics also transmitted the results of Swanson’s EKG, allowing for the team in the emergency room to prepare for his arrival.

Next, Swanson heard the stretcher wheels touch the ground as he was rushed into the emergency room. He felt dozens of hands working in unison, taking off his boots, cloths, removing his wallet to check for identification, and connecting him to IVs and chest patches. His arms and hands were now numb.

“I opened my eyes and the room was full of people,” Swanson said. “Though in great pain, I was fully aware and assessed what was going on. There wasn’t any downtime at all. Each person knew their job and what they had to do. I was very impressed.”

Once in the cath lab, Dr. Matthew Whitbeck, Sanford interventional cardiologist, introduced himself and explained the steps he was taking to save Swanson’s life. As Dr. Whitbeck placed a stent to repair the blockage and restore blood flow, Swanson’s heart stopped beating.

“I remember fading out, and I felt as though I had died,” Swanson said. “It was so real. I’m a Christian, so I wasn’t afraid. I remember looking for the proverbial light. When it didn’t appear I felt frustrated and asked the Lord, ‘What’s supposed to happen?’ It dawned on me maybe I wasn’t going to die. I told the Lord I’d like to live, but only if I didn’t have limitations.”

The medical team rushed to restart Swanson’s heart. When he woke up, his pain was gone, and he felt relaxed. He remembers the rest of the procedure including Dr. Witbeck explaining that he found just one blockage, which was 100 percent, and all the other arteries were clear. Swanson was then wheeled into the hallway where a welcome face met him — his wife.

“All the staff was great and very attentive,” Swanson said. “They really are special people who go into that kind of work.”

Less than an hour after Swanson first started having pains, he was recovering. Without services available near his home in Bemidji, he would have been rushed to Duluth, Grand Forks or Fargo, risking permanent heart damage or even death.

“I don’t think I would have made it,” Swanson said.

He headed back to work part-time less than a week after his heart attack and continued his recovery during eight sessions of cardiac rehabilitation. Within just three weeks, Swanson was back at work full-time.

“I’ve felt really good, like nothing happened,” Swanson said. “It seems my heart has recovered completely.”

You can help protect more hearts in our region by supporting Home Is Where the Heart Is. Donors to this important campaign will help build a new heart and vascular center right here at Sanford Bemidji, ensuring the same expert and efficient care Swanson received will be available here, close to home, for generations to come.