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Little Warning Signs: How Patrick Irwin Survived a Massive Heart Attack

Patrick Irwin was the picture of health – until one day in August 2016, when he suffered a massive heart attack. Irwin, 54, a lifelong runner who ran cross country and track in high school and college – and still averages 40 to 50 miles a week – is also an avid cyclist. Considering his active lifestyle, it’s easy to see why Irwin had no reason to believe that he was in anything but the best of health. “I didn’t have high blood pressure,” says Irwin, vice president of human resources for Henry Ford Health Systems South Market. “I didn’t have high cholesterol. I didn’t have diabetes.” 

On August 6, 2016, Irwin was riding with the members of We Bike Detroit. (Every month, 200 to 300 local cyclists meet up to cover 20 miles in a different Detroit neighborhood.) Irwin had run eight miles the day before and had no problems completing the ride. “I was leading the ride and was feeling fine, but when we got back at the end of the ride, I had a tingling in my hand and some shortness of breath. I thought, What the heck is this? I thought it was exercise-induced asthma,” says Irwin. “And my job is stressful – maybe it’s stress from work.”

Irwin asked his friends to bring him a drink and an inhaler. He was still having a hard time breathing, and his brother, concerned, suggested they go to a hospital. Irwin initially refused. “I said I was fine,” he says. “But I laid down on this grassy knoll outside of the restaurant and I looked up at the sky – it was a beautiful day – and I thought that this could be the last thing I ever see.” Irwin got up and told his brother to get him to the hospital – specifically, Henry Ford, where he knew the staff.

“We got in the Jeep, and I’m talking to the director of the ER, and I’m asking whether I should come in, because this shortness of breath is coming and going every minute or two,” says Irwin. “I’m still thinking it’s just [related to] exercise. We park the car and I walk in, and I’m talking to people, and the ER coordinator comes out and says, ‘What are you doing? Get in here!’”

When they hooked up Irwin to a heart monitor, he got the shock of his life – he was literally having a heart attack. (Usually patients arrive at the emergency room after having a heart attack, so it’s unusual for the ER staff to witness it in real time.) Because time was short, Irwin was rushed upstairs to the cardiac catherization lab, where Dr. Akshay Khandelwal, Henry Ford’s Associate Division Head of Cardiology who also chairs the national board of governors of the American College of Cardiology, performed the procedure that saved his life.

Irwin remembered that John Behm, a cath lab nurse he knew at Henry Ford, leaned over him as he was lying on the gurney. “He said, ‘Patrick, I’ve got to tell you – your condition is extremely severe. I just want you to know,’ ” remembers Irwin. “I said, ‘Tell my brother that the last thing I ever said was that I love him and everything will be okay.’”

Afterward Irwin learned that he survived a heart attack often called a “widow-maker” because of its severity. Ninety-nine percent of his main artery had been blocked, but the medical team was able to open his blocked artery and place stents to keep the blood flowing. “The doctor told my girlfriend that I wouldn’t have made it if they had taken me for open heart surgery,” says Irwin. “I am 100 percent convinced that if I had gone anywhere else, I would have died.”

What saved Irwin? His overall fitness level and the fact that he sought treatment. “If you have some of these warning symptoms – like significant palpitations or dizziness, especially if you have chest pain or shortness of breath – seek attention right away,” says Dr. Khandelwal. Prompt treatment significantly increases your chance of survival.

Due to his overall good health and the treatment he received, Irwin had no damage to his heart muscle. He was back on the treadmill five days after his heart attack and was running, at an easy pace, within two weeks. He realized in
retrospect that he had also likely suffered a heart attack two weeks prior. “I was biking and had shortness of breath and tingling two weeks before – I couldn’t finish the ride,” he says. He had a quick medical exam, but nothing was found at the time.

“I’m not going to be scared of living,” Irwin says today. Still, the experience has changed him, and he’s even more health-conscious than before, especially when it comes to managing stress. “I call that day my new birthday,” he says. “If I told you that you only get one car your whole life, how much care would you put into taking care of that car? Well, you’ve got one body. What I’ve learned is that you have to take care of your health. Be easier on yourself, forgive and move on. Life is short, and when you get a second opportunity, you really appreciate it.”

Categories: Get Healthy