Archive for Monday, February 18, 2008

Surviving the widow-maker

Fire chief relives day heart attack nearly killed him

February 18, 2008


Lawrence Fire Chief Mark Bradford works out in his home last week. Bradford had a heart attack in September and is undergoing a relaxed workout every day to try to get stronger and back into good health.

Lawrence Fire Chief Mark Bradford works out in his home last week. Bradford had a heart attack in September and is undergoing a relaxed workout every day to try to get stronger and back into good health.

Heart attack symptoms

Most heart attacks start slowly with mild discomfort, according to the American Heart Association. That's why it is particularly important to be able to recognize the warning signs of a heart attack. Here are some of the more common signs, and a few tips, according to the association:

¢ Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back.

¢ Discomfort in other areas of the body. Specifically, symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

¢ Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

¢ Cold sweats, nausea or lightheadedness.

¢ A heart attack in women is somewhat more likely to produce the symptoms of shortness of breath, nausea and back or jaw pain.

¢ Not all of the symptoms have to occur for a heart attack to occur.

¢ If you can't positively rule out a heart attack, call 911 for emergency medical assistance.

l If available, always call an ambulance rather than driving to the hospital.

This was going to be the day.

It was Sept. 17 - a warm Monday that summer wouldn't quite let go of - and Lawrence Fire Chief Mark Bradford did something he normally doesn't do. He went home to eat lunch with his wife.

Mark sat in his kitchen and munched on a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while he listened to his wife, Trish, speak about her latest efforts. She was training for a half-marathon.

Trish, by her own admission, is an exercise nut. Mark is ... well, he describes it this way: "I'm not the perfect gym rat."

That could be one way to put it.

It was not, however, how Trish chose to: "He hates exercise."

But something - maybe it was all the talk of training or maybe it was just a rush from the sweet jelly - but something put Mark in the mood that men sometimes get in. They see the bull and decide to go right after the horns.

"He told me he decided this was the day he was really going to do something about exercise," Trish said.

Then, he promptly did his best to drop dead.


Mark Bradford looks like a man of order.

Put his tall frame and broad shoulders in a perfectly pressed white shirt that serves as a stark, clean backdrop to the gold shield that he wears over his heart, and there's no doubt who leads the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical department.

In short, he doesn't look like the type of man who has to worry about dying of a heart attack over a leisurely lunch.

"I'm in fairly decent condition," Mark said. "I probably eat like most everybody else - not the best but not the worst. I don't smoke. I don't drink. You feel like you have a pretty good life."

But that's why Mark is sitting here today - 48 years into his life and 144 days after the ordinary lunch that almost was his last - talking to a newspaper reporter about an extremely personal event.

He wants people to know that a heart attack can sneak up on anyone.

It sure did on Mark, a 27-year veteran of the fire service who has spent many of those years as a paramedic and advocate for better heart care. In February, he had his annual fit-for-duty physical required for all firefighters. Because of a history of elevated cholesterol levels, he had a special cardiovascular exam as part of the physical. No problems were found.

None of that mattered, though, because on Sept. 17 Mark didn't just have a heart attack. He found himself on his back in his west Lawrence home sweating, suffering and worrying about a very specific type of heart attack. One that paramedics and doctors have long had a gruesome name for: A widow-maker.


Trish knew something was wrong.

No sooner had Mark gotten done making his exercise proclamation than he declared that he felt nausea. It just hit him all of a sudden. He'd felt fine all morning and wasn't having a particularly stressful day. But now he felt sick and said he was going to lie down.

Then, just seconds later, Mark called Trish back into the room.

"He was sweating profusely, and when he called me back in, he had an ashen look on his face," Trish said, describing two classic symptoms of a heart attack. "I knew there was something wrong. I just didn't know how bad it was."

But here's where 17 years of being married to a paramedic comes in handy. She knew she didn't need to know what was wrong. She just needed to call 911.

"I just tried to stay calm and think it through," Trish said. "That's what anyone should do. If it is just indigestion, great, but get them to a hospital and let someone else diagnose it."

Mark said his wife did exactly what she was supposed to.

"Always err on the side of critical," he said. "She did exactly what every good wife does. She told her husband exactly what to do. I don't know if I would be here if it wasn't for her being there."

But critical was no err in this case.

Trish remembers kissing her husband on the cheek, telling him she loved him and then leaving him alone to go let the paramedics in the front door.

When she arrived at the Lawrence Memorial Hospital emergency room, Mark already was hooked up to several machines and surrounded by doctors and nurses. Within minutes, Trish was handed a consent form to allow doctors to do an emergency operation to clear her husband's artery.

"I remember looking at the nurse and saying, 'You're going to do this now,'" Trish said. "At that point, I knew it was really bad."

But she didn't let it show. By all accounts, Trish was calm throughout.

"I thought if I stayed calm, that would help him stay calm," Trish said.

There were moments, though, that the crowds of people gathered at the hospital - doctors, nurses, concerned assistant fire chiefs and Trish's co-workers at the Lawrence Police Department - didn't see.

"That first night back at our house, when I went to bed, it hit me," Trish said. "That's when it hit me how life could have been so different."


Mark knew what was happening.

Yeah, that had both its good and bad points. He knew what to expect because he's been a paramedic on more heart calls than he can count. He could see, and follow along, with the treatment that was being done. His team was doing it just right.

"I was coherent through it all," Mark said. "Coherent as much as usual, anyway."

So he knew what to expect. But he also knew what to expect - good and bad points.

Mark knew, eventually, what type of heart attack he was having. He knew it was a widow-maker. His left coronary artery was completely clogged. Such a heart attack kills more than 90 percent of everyone it strikes. Mark had told crowds that statistic on several occasions.

Perhaps the only good thing about this particular type of heart attack is that it doesn't create much indecision. Mark and his paramedics frequently see people have heart attacks who don't recognize it until it is too late. They have an achy chest pain, perhaps with a back or neck ache. Maybe their arm is sore. They let the pain linger for a day or more before they get medical attention.

With a widow-maker, there's no mistaking the pain as something that will soon pass.

"This is the worst pain I had ever experienced," Mark said. "This is the only time I felt there was a possibility that I would not survive."

When he got to the hospital, his worries were confirmed. They immediately wheeled him into a special section of the ER reserved for the most critical of cases.

"I knew I wasn't going in there because I was a VIP," Mark said.

But then he caught a break. Life sometimes is about breaks.

The one that Mark likely always will remember is that a team of cardiovascular surgeons had just finished a procedure in the LMH Cath Lab. In other words, the team of surgeons Mark needed to save his life was already at the hospital and ready to begin work. He entered surgery 19 minutes after he arrived at the ER. He had three stents placed into his left anterior descending artery. It was during that surgery that Mark first gained some optimism that he would live to see tomorrow.

Like most patients having the heart procedure, he was partially conscious. Doctors kept asking him whether the pain was subsiding. That's one way they gauge whether their work to clear the artery is successful. At some point, several minutes into the surgery, Mark finally got to answer yes.

Mark knew what a doctor later told his wife.

"The doctor said it was just a matter of minutes before he was gone," Trish said. "If the surgeons hadn't already been at the hospital :''

These days, Mark sums up the break of a lifetime simply.

"In this case, I think the stars were just all lined up correctly, as they say."


Not all of life is about breaks, though. Some of it is just about hard work - the hard work of change.

That's how Mark would describe the process of rehabilitation. And he's honest in saying that he doesn't yet have it mastered.

"I'm probably not unique," Mark said. "I'm not a good patient."

Trish would agree.

She said that since the heart attack they've talked many times about his need to exercise more and to eat better. Trish said she had always fixed healthy meals but has taken it to a different level. She replaced ground beef with ground turkey, in many cases. And there are other changes she's not going to reveal here.

"I've made lots of changes that they don't know about," she said, referring to Mark and their 14-year-old son.

But she's not with her husband for every meal, and Mark admits that there have been times when restaurant receipts have given him away.

And then there is the exercise. Mark spent nine weeks in official cardio-rehab at LMH. Now, he has a set of exercises that he's supposed to be doing every day. Instead, he does them a couple times a week, he said.

"I'm still like anyone else. I have to physically schedule the time to exercise," Mark said. "It can be tough."

Can be tough on the person who has to watch it, too. Trish said she exercises more than ever to relieve her stress. She says she sleeps lightly any night that her husband goes to bed feeling a little ill with the flu or a cold. She says she prays for him.

But what she tries not to do anymore is nag about his rehabilitation. That doesn't mean she still doesn't encourage. She looks forward to nice weather when they can take long walks together.

She also prepares. She knows it could happen again. She took a CPR course to brush up on those skills. She's talked openly with their son, Zachary. Having a family history of heart problems is one of the risk factors for having a heart attack yourself. She and Mark have been discussing the purchase of an automated external defibrillator for their home.

But she also has realized that there's only so much she can do.

"He knows how I feel. He knows how Zachary feels," Trish said. "He's an adult, and he has to make these choices. I don't know what will get him to do it, but it is not anything I'm going to do. It has to come from him.

"But you also have to realize that it is not going to happen overnight. It is not easy. But he's working through these things himself.

"And I know he's going to get there."


Rae Smith Evans 10 years, 3 months ago

Keep the faith, Trish and Zachary. Exercise is a great stress reliever and his job can be unbearably stressful. Once he figures that one out, he'll likely exercise every minute he can. Until then, you are not alone in this community. I grew up as a firehouse brat. I well know the life. It's a good "family".

domino 10 years, 3 months ago

Boy did this one hit home! Although he never suffered a major heart attack, my husband had at least 2 "silent heart attacks" before his problems were found. He had triple by-pass 14 years ago. He doesn't eat as well as he should - doesn't exercise as much as he should and continues to smoke infrequently. Took me a long time to realize there was nothing I could do to make him make the changes he needs to. Like Trish, I try to cook as healthy as I can, but as the article said, I'm not there to moniter everything that goes in his mouth! Keep praying for him and encouraging him - that is one of the best things we can do for them!

Susan Lee 10 years, 3 months ago

My husband is an avid runner - he runs several miles daily and completed the New York City Marathon in November 2006. A couple of months later when he resumed running, he began to experience chest pains.
After several months, he finally saw a doctor and had a stress test. The (very incompetent) doctor who read the test, told him he was fine, just not to run when he experienced pain. He continued to jog, and finally saw another doctor. This cardiologist re-read the original test and told him he had a major problem. Again, he continued to jog, experiencing pain at times when running. A couple of months later he FINALLY decided to have a heart catherization - and they wouldn't let him leave the hospital. He had a double bypass the next morning. He had "the widowmaker" , and his major incoming artery was almost 98% blocked! Today doctors continue to discuss his case, saying that he experienced a miracle - he really should have "died under a tree somewhere" as one doctor told me. Several of them say that God was watching over him, and I totally agree. Moral of the story: GET A SECOND OPINION! (and keep in close contact with God!)

Fatty_McButterpants 10 years, 3 months ago

If the only thing that saved him from making a widow of his wife was the fact that the surgeons were already at the hospital can't convince Chief Bradford to exercise as he's supposed to, nothing will. Seriously, he has scheduling problems with his exercise, and he can't choose to eat healthy when he goes out to eat for lunch? It doesn't sound like he's very appreciative for his good fortune.

90% of the people suffering his type of heart attack would give anything to have to exercise and eat right.

coolmarv 10 years, 3 months ago

The article says the Mrs. replaced beef with ground turkey. Is there a difference, nutritionaly, between 85% lean beef compared to 85% lean turkey? They both say they have the same amount of fat and choleterol so what gives? Is it the beef that is bad for you or the amount of fat and cholesteral. I think the same goes for chicken and pork. Same fat content equals about the same cholesterol with all meats.

volunteer 10 years, 3 months ago

Thank you for sharing your story, Mark. Those annual physical exams can give us a false sense of security.

I'm getting up and going for a brisk walk.

mom_of_three 10 years, 3 months ago

wow, it really makes you think about what you do/don't do, and eat. It could happen to anybody... really opens your eyes.
great story - very happy for the happy ending.

AlligatorMama 10 years, 3 months ago

I've worked in EMS and it truly is amazing that he was able to survive and come through like he did! What a great and happy ending :) My thoughts and prayers continue to go out to that family that he re-gains more strength everyday. It seems we only hear negative things about LMH, so it was nice to hear something good for a change! :)

George_Braziller 10 years, 3 months ago

My maternal grandfather died of a massive heart attack at the age of 65 while square dancing with my grandmother. He was dead by the time he hit the floor.

I'd much rather go that way than fade away with senile dementia like my father did at age 75.

wiljman50 9 years, 11 months ago

July 28,2006 I was sitting at the table, reading one of those electricity for dummies book, when i started feeling some discomfort in my chest. I got up to go to the bathroom, why, I don't know. After taking a few steps, the pain got worse, so I told my wife to call 911. She called, and promptly gas me two aspirins, which later I found out saved my life. This attack was the worst pain i have had. on the scale of 1-10, it was a 20. Eight days later i had another attack. My point is, never dismiss the symtoms, call 911and take aspirins.I owe my life to the quick thinking of my wife, this according to my doctors.

wiljman50 9 years, 11 months ago

to previous post: I had no insurance, and they didn't hesitate.

Greg843 9 years, 3 months ago

Mark I read your story today with great interest. I have been a police officer in Ohio for 34 years. I was 54 years old when had my heart attack on 12/11/08. I woke from a sound sleep with a chest pain that was unbearable. I thought I had been stabbed. The pain was worse then being hit with the 50,000 volts from a taser gun. My wife called medics. They hooked me up to 4 lead ekg and then a 12 lead ekg. It showed nothing. Went to the hospital. They didn't find anything, but they kept me overnight. Next morning they came to my room to tell me I had a heart attack. You can only imagine what my verbal response was. They took me to the cath lab. I had 95% blockage of the left anterior desending coronary artery. After reading your story I realize just how lucky I was. I went back to work on1/26/09. I hate to exercise, but I go to gym 5 days a week. Thanks for sharing your story.

Coachhowie 8 years, 2 months ago

Mark, I guess we have joined a pretty exclusive club. Like yourself, I had this devastating heart attack 5 years ago. I could not believe it. Unlike you, I am in the best condition of my life when this hits. I am PE teacher and worked out every day. I had lost almost 50 lbs over a 12 year period. I was coaching 2 soccer teams and officiating soccer 2-3 nights a week. Like yourself, my wife was my saving grace. She got me to the hospital and the guys in the Cath Lab performed their magic.
Since my heart attack, I have lost 3 different jobs due to "Non renewed contract due to budget cuts." People look at my medical history and I seem to be the one who gets cut, despite my stellar performance record. I would love to talk to you and would love to find out how many others are out there like us. Sounds like your job is safe, and that is great for you.

Drew57 6 years, 7 months ago

I hated turning 50. My father had died from his second heart attack in six months in his fifties. Ten years earlier, I had immigrated to California from the UK. The lifestyle change was unkind and I put on a lot (100lbs) of weight, and this induced Type II diabetes and Sleep Apnea. I had never been athletic, but I had always been well - I boasted that I had only had six days sick leave in my entire working career. A career that had included thirty years in public safety, including periods as a police officer and a firefighter/emt. I had been working a private, armed, gang suppression position, 10 hour night shifts, wearing body armour and a 20lb gun belt. I had an hour's commute each way to the job site, rising gas prices and minimal wage - all in all, very stressful. Sunday night was much like any other, until around 2am I ran up three flights of apartment stairs, and on reaching the top was so out of breath I could not speak. I got back to the parking lot - still out of breath and with a little chest pain. Removing the front panel of my bullet proof vest eased things and I took my meal break before finishing the remainer of the shift and driving home. I had breakfast and went to bed around 8am. An hour later I was woken by an intense sub-sternal pain, but with no other symptoms I took this to be indigestion, and when the paid passed, wnet back to bed and slept for the rest of the day. I woke feeling fine, and worked another full week. The following Monday was Memorial Day, so I only slept for a couple of hours after work before getting up to attend a social event. I noticed that I was wheezing a little and thought that I might be getting a cold. Over the next five hours, the wheezing got worse. For some reason, instead of calling 911, I drove myself to the local ER, ten minutes from home, getting progressively worse. I parked and walked across the lot to the ER entrance. As I stepped inside, I could tell that the nurse behind the desk didn't like what he saw, and I started to say "I'm having difficulty breathing". I was told later that I didn't finish the sentance - the next thing I remember was waking to a full crash team working on me. I was moved from ER to the Cath Lab, where another tean was ready to take over my care. Angiograms confirmed the problem, and two stents were inserted. I was told that I was in Atrial Fibrulation - likely since the chest pain a week before. I was also told that there was evidence of an earlier heart attack that would require a double bypass to repair. Several days later I was 'cardioverted' to return my rythmn to 'sinus'. After almost two weeks in hospital, I came home - but not for long. I had been home less than 24 hours when I started to feel 'strange' - no chest pain, no breathing problem, but something was wrong. I picked up the phone and dialled 911.

Drew57 6 years, 7 months ago


When the dispatcher answered, I realized that I could not speak and was having a stroke. It took several minutes - knowing what I needed to say, but unable to actually voice the words. I managed to say 'stroke' and the police dispatcher transferred me to fire dispatch. As the minutes passed, I was able to give an address - I only had a cell phone so the dispatcher was not given a location for me. By the time I reached hospital most of the dysphasia had passed, and within eight hours everything was back to normal. I got to go home again the next day - a little wiser. Last month, I went for my double bypass - waking to find that I'd had a four way. It was explained to be that I'd had a partial blockage of the LAD artery - a potential widowmaker. I learned that the fact that I had lost 80lbs in the preceeding months, resolving the diabetes and improving the sleep apnea, was likely the difference between living and dying.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.