Surviving the Widow-Maker

When I left home on the morning of Wednesday, October 19, the only thing on my mind was apartment hunting. I had appointments to check out a few places, one in the morning, the other after lunch. I never imagined the day would end with me lying on the operating table and a team of doctors and nurses fighting to keep me alive. But that’s exactly what happened.

I’m 59 years old. I was born in 1963 and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. Today, it’s in the part of the country known as, the “Rust Belt,” but, back then, the steel industry was booming. Youngstown was STEEL-town, and the best jobs were either in the steel mills or at the new Lordstown GM auto plant. Youngstown was a hard working, blue-collar town, indeed.

I remember my Father holding 4 jobs at once to provide for our family, (my parents had six children). He worked in the steel mill for more than a decade. He also worked over 30 years at the GM plant. He and my Mom opened and operated an appliance store. And, he was a Cantor at our St. Mary’s Catholic Church, basically his whole life. Essentially, he worked like a horse his entire life to make sure that we were all taken care of.

In 1980, while I was a Junior in High School, my Dad had his first heart attack at age 54. It was the Widow-Maker and it required a quadruple bypass. I have never been so afraid in my life. Seeing him in the ICU post surgery was so traumatic and stressful, and knowing that he was still not out of the woods made it even more horrific. I could loose my Father as a teen. That week and a half that he remained in the hospital was the worst time of my life. He survived and was released to recover at home. During the discharge at the hospital, we were all there (my Mom and all 6 kids) listening intently to the cardiologist who performed the surgery give us the instructions to help my Dad live a long and healthy life moving forward. We all took copious notes and hung on every word the doc said. We peppered him with question after question. We made sure we knew exactly what to do to care for him post surgery.

While my father subsequently altered his diet, physical activity and medicine over the years, he did suffer 4 more heart attacks in the next 35 years. Although none were as severe as the first, they were just as scary. Each time we altered his care based on his age and severity of the attack. Both of my Grandfathers passed away from heart attacks. So, we all knew that the males in our family were quite susceptible to a heart attack at any point in our lives.

So at 17 years old, I decided that I was going to stave off that possibility by running 5 – 7 miles a day. I wanted a very strong heart. Whether it was running, football, beach volleyball, surfing, weight lifting… my entire life I’ve been athletic and remained committed to exercise. When I was 45, I started doing Cross Fit and achieved a body fat level of 12%, which is almost pro-athlete level. I felt pretty happy with and confident about my health.

After working hard my whole life, I was able to retire at 57 and I realized my long time dream of moving to Portugal. Prior to moving, while living in Atlanta, I made so many doctor appointments to check out EVERYTHING. My blood work, my heart, lungs, all major organs – everything was fine. I was good to go!

After I made the move to Lisbon, I started to enjoy my retirement.

My first doctor appointment here, was for a skin issue. I documented it in a video that you can see here.

Soon after, I made a few more appointments, very similar to the ones I just had prior to moving here – heart, lungs, blood work, organs, etc. Everything came back roses again. I had peace of mind that I was deemed healthy so I began my travels. I’ve kept very busy meeting new friends and exploring. Whether it’s hiking in the mountains or surfing or daily walks up and down the hilly terrain of Lisbon, I’ve remained very active.

Fast forward to the night of October 18, 2022. I started to feel what I thought was heartburn, before going to bed. It felt worse than any heartburn I’ve had before. But, I tried to relax, breathe deep, and I went to bed. I was able to sleep and in the morning, I felt OK, just a little dizzy.

For a while, I had been aggressively hunting for an apartment because I’ve been very unhappy in this one. And the neighborhood really just isn’t where I want to live. My goal was to get out of this place ASAP or even sooner.

I made it to the 10 AM appointment with no problem and even walked about a mile to get home at around noon. I had a small lunch and began to prepare to walk to the second apartment, scheduled for viewing at 3:30. I thought it was just going to be a normal afternoon and with a little luck, I might find my new apartment. About ten minutes after eating lunch, I started to feel that tightness in my chest again and I thought it was perhaps heartburn again. Then, I started to feel woozy and nauseous and began sweating profusely from my head. I started to really get worried that something very bad was happening. When my left arm started to feel numb, I knew those were symptoms similar to the ones my father had during his multiple heart attacks. I realized, yes, I was having a heart attack. I had a decision to make. I could either call 112 (Portugal’s 911), or I could walk myself the 100 meters to the hospital that was close to my apartment, the one that I disliked and was trying to move away from. Something inside me told me that I should just somehow summon the strength to walk myself to that hospital instead of calling an ambulance. I thought the ambulance would have taken too long. As I made that walk, or really just stumbled my way there, I kept thinking of how strong my father was during his heart attacks and I did my best to channel that energy. I know he was with me, pushing me to get there. Here is a video I took to show the actual distance of that walk.

100 meter walk to the hospital

When I staggered through the doors and into the hospital lobby reception area, I knew people could see me and my condition. That’s when I allowed myself to collapse. I was smart enough to carry my Portuguese Residence ID in my hand so they would have my information. I heard a lady start screaming “Help! Help! Help!” I remember turning my head and throwing up. Next thing I recall, is seeing about a dozen people standing over me. The Bombeiros (Paramedics) knew that I was having a heart attack and that they needed to act fast. HOWEVER, this hospital, Sao Jose, did not have a cardiology department! They had to put me into an ambulance and transfer me 1 kilometer away to Santa Marta Hospital.

Upon arriving to Hospital Santa Marta, they took me directly to emergency where the Cardiologist Surgeon was waiting for me to be placed on the operating table. In the ambulance, they had already inserted an IV and began giving me morphine and nitro. And, during the transportation to Santa Marta, all of my information was given to the Doc’s waiting to do the operation. I was still awake and alert as the doctors and nurses prepped me and asked me questions. They told me that I was indeed having the “Widow Maker” heart attack as they looked at the scan and that I was very lucky to have made it there that soon. I was told that I was 98% blocked and that they were going to try to put a stent in and if that didn’t work, they would proceed with open heart surgery. I asked them if there was a chance that I could die. “Yes” was the one word answer he gave me, so I asked if I could call my family. I called my brother and told him I was having a heart attack and was on the operating table about to be operated on. I told him that I loved him and and my entire family and to let them know what was happening. I hung up thinking that would be the last time I spoke with anyone. Then, I focused on and listened to what the doctors told me to do.

I was sedated but totally awake for the stent procedure operation. There were two 40 inch screens above me that they kept maneuvering to see different angles of the heart, valves and arteries during the operation. Then, I saw it. He found the blockage. It looked like the size of a marble and he told me he was about to extract it and then insert the stent and that I was NOT TO MOVE. I knew from his tone and the look on his face that this was the critical moment. Yes, I was scared “to death” at that distinct moment. Once the stent was inserted successfully, the chest pain immediately started to subside. He told me that everything went successfully and that I would now be sent to the ICU for recovery for two days.

The next morning in the ICU they came to take me to run a test called an Echocardiogram which checks how the hearts chambers and valves are pumping blood through my heart. It also checks for any damage to the heart muscle or if there was any pericardial effusion. After running the test and returning back to my room, the Doc told me that I was able to leave the Hospital that day! I was stunned! He told me that the procedure was a complete success and that there was no damage to my heart and that I was clear of any blockage!! I was shaking and in disbelief! I had questions. Several questions, about future diet, exercise habits and medicines. As I was firing them off, one by one, I realized that most of my questions are the very same ones we asked my Father’s doctor, 42 years ago. He addressed all of my concerns about everything. He gave me the recipe to live another 30 years!

So then, I went to the hospital administration to check out and to make payment for everything. When I handed the lady my private Health Insurance Card, she looked at me really funny and said, “You are a Portuguese resident. You have a Utente, (which is a Portuguese public healthcare number), and you’re in a public hospital.” And then she said the most amazing thing: “YOU DON’T OWE ANYTHING, this is a public hospital and you are a Portuguese resident.” The look she gave me was almost like she was chastising me. Like, “we care for people here!!” To be honest with you, I was so afraid I was going to die that I didn’t even think about insurance or payment until that very moment. The universal healthcare in Portugal was one of the tipping points for my decision to move here, (along with great surfing!), and I am so grateful and feel so blessed to have had such professional and sincere care here in my adopted home country!

So, I left the hospital and returned back to my home to follow the doctors orders and just rest, take my medicine, continue to eat healthy, and follow up with him per his assigned appointments. He did tell me I was allowed to walk about an hour a day. And I was allowed to drive. Also, I could drink ONE glass of red wine per night. But, I should wait until I saw him again before even thinking about running or surfing! I was OK with that!

So, here comes the second best part of this entire story! Obviously, my survival is first!! But, after everything was over and I was back, again sitting in my crappy apartment, it dawned on me; There’s a good chance that if I were successful finding another place, I wouldn’t have made it to that hospital! And maybe I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write this story. Maybe I wouldn’t be here! So, now, I’m looking at this crappy apartment that I hated so much, in a totally different light. I don’t hate it anymore! Not at all. I’m thankful that I was so close to help when I needed it. Living in this apartment actually helped to save my life! It turned out to be a God-send! And even though I can no longer hate it, it’s still a crappy apartment and I’m still moving.

So, since I was allowed to, and supposed to walk about an hour a day for the next 2-3 weeks, I decided for my first walk, I’d retrace my 100 meter walk back to the lobby of Sao Jose Hospital to see if I could find the lady who got the paramedics to me very quickly.

The instant I walked through the Hospital Reception area entrance, I saw her eyes light up as she came running toward me yelling, “Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!” Meet Felippa! She was my guardian angel when I really needed one. She’s the one who found me on the floor and screamed for the paramedics to get to me ASAP. She knew that she had helped to save my life! We cried together. We laughed together. We have a bond for life. And she hugged and squeezed me so hard, with such a look of genuine joy on her face, it truly felt as if it were a big, joyful, loving hug from my own Mother!! Felippa was the first of many heroes I had that day.

So many things had to go right for me to still be alive today. Knowing what the symptoms of a heart attack were. Getting to the hospital as soon as I did. Felippa getting the paramedics there in no time at all. Having the presence of mind to leave my PT ID in my pocket. Having the ambulance take me directly to the operating table. But most of all, having such professional, caring and sincere doctors, nurses, technicians and GREAT human beings looking after me! I am forever grateful to each and every one of them! And to all of my friends and family that have physically helped or offered prayers and encouragement, thank you, times 1,000,000! I am blessed. This whole experience has not so much changed my outlook on life, but rather, it helped me focus on priorities. I know that my purpose here on earth is not complete. I owe, and I plan to give back. Maybe somehow I can be a hero, too.

One thought on “Surviving the Widow-Maker

  1. Sarah Mills

    I’m happy for you. I’m leaking tears of relief (even knowing you’re able to write about afterwards.) You’re a good story teller. I had a similar moment at the Payments window at a hospital in the UK in the 1990’s. I learned that the window was actually to help folks get taxi money to make health care more accessible. Yes, universal health care is sooo needed.


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