One Lucky Dude

Joel and Wendy Robbins with their kids Ashley and Isaac

On August 25, 2010, I earned the title of "one lucky dude." It was awarded to me by "Dr. Andy," an ER doctor I had just "met" that day. The circumstances of our meeting were less than ideal. In fact, they were nearly tragic for me and my family — wife Wendy, son Isaac and beautiful Ashley. We met because of a complete blockage of my left anterior descending artery (LAD).

In retrospect, it is not too surprising that I ended up in the ER. I was 44 years old, enjoying my family, working too much, not paying much attention to my health and eating habits — you know, just living life. I had gained some weight and tipped the scales at 263 pounds.

To be honest, my life was very stressful. We had bought a house on acreage, but before we could sell our other home, the real estate market tanked. Then the company I worked for sold the location where I worked. I stayed at the site, working for the new company. I’m a network engineer, and the transition process was not smooth. I was bombarded from both companies with network changes and security questions. As a result I was getting little sleep. That had been my life for the previous 10 months.

In July I began to experience some shortness of breath, but since it always resolved itself, I didn’t do anything about it. On the 26th, I had an allergic reaction to bee stings and was given medication. At work the next day, I visited the nurses because my blood pressure was 142/116 and my heart rate was 93. I was told it was the allergy medicine working and not to worry about it. I sought help two more times over the next two days, and both times was told it was the medication and not to worry. So I didn’t. Over the next month, I had several episodes of shortness of breath, but they only lasted a few seconds and then I was fine (or so I thought).

When I got home from work on August 25th, Wendy and the kids were working in the yard. I was tired, so I lay down to rest a bit. They called through the window for me to come help with something so I went out. I did a few more chores, and as I finished putting things away, I fell face first to the ground. I had no energy and was extremely short of breath. This time, the shortness of breath did not go away! I remember thinking, ‘I’m only 44; I can’t be having a heart attack!’ Wendy and the kids came over to check on me, but I said I was fine and didn’t need to go to the doctor or hospital…it was nothing. I finally stood up and "determined" I had just overheated. I went inside to take a shower and cool off.

While in the shower, extreme pain erupted in my chest. It was as if someone were pushing their heel down into the center of my breastbone and someone else was pulling back on my shoulders. I broke into a cold sweat and both of my arms went numb. Now I knew I was having a heart attack! I got out of the shower and fell to the floor. Everything around me was gray, no color whatsoever. I thought, ‘I don’t want to die here,’ so I got up off the floor and headed for the stairway.

I was very unstable on my feet, and the stairway looked overwhelmingly steep. I remember saying, "Please don’t let me fall," and suddenly, the stairway appeared to be narrower and distant — as if I had been lifted above it. I truly believe God was holding me and helping me down the stairs. While descending the stairs, I noticed the Lord’s Prayer we have hanging above the landing — it was completely in color and in focus….while around it everything was still gray. It was at that moment, I realized God was with me and telling me PRAY!

I had called out to Wendy, and she met me at the bottom of the stairs. As she wrapped her arms around me and helped me to the floor, I whispered, "Arms numb, can’t breathe." I was now gasping for every breath. Immediately Wendy called 911. She did a great job of staying calm. I could hear the kids crying. I was praying for all I was worth and can safely say that was the hardest I have ever prayed.

 The only way I know how to thank the men and women who saved my life is to pay it forward.

I felt some relief when I heard the sirens in the distance. The first responders came and then the EMTs. They loaded me on a stretcher and wheeled me to the ambulance. The hardest part of this was looking at Isaac and Ashley and thinking this was going to be the last time I ever saw my family. Fortunately, God was still there with me and worked through the EMT as three different times on the way to the ER, the two of them — God and the EMT — brought me back. Standing over me, the EMT told me, "God isn’t done with you yet. Don’t leave me."

God had all the right people in all the right places for me that night. When I got to the hospital, the staff immediately started working on me. The cardiologist had alerted the catheterization team while I was still in the ambulance, so they could be ready for me. My senses were heightened and I could hear all of the conversations that night. Even in the ambulance when the EMT told the ER that he needed to speak with the cardiologist on duty because he had a 44-year-old, white male actively having a heart attack and of the three EKGs he had performed in the ambulance, none looked good. We were five minutes out and everyone needed to be ready. That is really scary because I realized it was me they were talking about! When we pulled into the ER, I was cold and my legs were numb. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t have much time left…I’m slipping away.’

Despite the hustle and bustle of medical staff everywhere in the ER, this calmness came over me. The ER staff was really working on stabilizing me and trying to ease my pain, though it was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. I cried a little but quickly knew I needed to fight instead. It was great to see Wendy and my parents there in the ER. In short order, the staff whisked me away to the catheterization lab. There I briefly passed out but immediately came to when they removed the clot and inserted a stent. I was warm and could feel my arms and legs again and I had no more pain. After I looked around, I was relieved that the big bright light overhead was just the surgical lamp. I thanked the nurses and said I felt wonderful. I also thanked God for the first time that night.

I was soon lying in my ICU bed, incredibly thankful to see my beautiful bride and parents again. I was able to speak with my wonderful kids on the phone and assure them that Dad was OK and would see them tomorrow. So, only a few hours after this whole thing had started, I was feeling great.

Since then I have learned a lot about my heart and what it takes to be heart healthy. I walked my first Heart Walk just 56 days after my heart attack. I have changed my habits: I lost 60 pounds and cut way back on salt. I leave work at the office, and I take time to be active. Of course, the big hitter in my recovery is thanking God for saving my life so I can see my wife and kids each and every day. I changed enough that I received the Lifestyle Change Award from the Indiana affiliate of the American Heart Association in 2011.

The only way I know how to thank the men and women who saved my life is to pay it forward, so I am an active volunteer for the AHA. I walk in the Heart Walk every year and chaired that event in 2013. I am a Social Media Diplomat for the AHA — I monitor its Facebook and Twitter pages and respond with encouragement to people who post about heart issues. Because of my experience changing my own habits, I am a National Mentor for Lifestyle Change for people recovering from heart events.

Considering all this, I have to agree with Dr. Andy, I am one lucky dude!

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