How  to Survive a “Widowmaker” Heart Attack

It never occurred to Joe Cravillion that he was having a heart attack. The 45-year-old long haul truck driver was home visiting his mother when his symptoms came on. He helped her move a TV into the living room and felt some pain across his chest, but he didn’t think much of it. Shortly afterwards, he vomited and began sweating profusely.

“I just wasn’t feeling well,” Joe says. “It never dawned on me that it was my heart.”

He told his mother he was going to bed, but the last thing he remembers is walking down the hallway. His mother Carol heard him fall, rushed to his side, and began CPR. She pounded on his chest, stopping just long enough to call 911.

“I learned it back in my 20s when I was a Brownie leader,” Carol recalls. “I can’t believe I stayed calm enough and had the presence of mind to remember.”

“My mom is strong,” Joe smiles. “My chest hurt for weeks afterward.”

“Don’t you feel bad. I was sore too,” Carol reminds him.

A “widowmaker” heart attack

Casco-Lincoln emergency responders were first on the scene, showing up on Carol’s doorstep with an AED, a portable defibrillator that restarts the heart. They took over Joe’s care before the EMT’s arrived and loaded him into an ambulance.

In total, Joe was shocked six times before he arrived at Aurora BayCare Medical Center. Once there, he was shocked three more times before his heart returned to a sustainable rhythm. That’s when doctors were able to perform an EKG that revealed Joe was having a massive heart attack.

Joe had a complete blockage in his left anterior descending artery a condition often referred to as a “widowmaker”, because of how large this type of heart attack is. He was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab where interventional cardiologist Dr. Scott Weslow used a balloon and stent to get Joe’s blood flowing again.

A rare recovery

According to the American Heart Association, more than 350,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur each year in the U.S. Of those, almost 90% of the victims will die. Those that live will often suffer debilitating brain damage.

Joe was one of the rare lucky ones. He walked out of the hospital with a full recovery. Sixty days later, he was cleared to go back to work.

“Things that happened that we can attribute Joe’s outcome to are getting CPR right away, the EMS care, and then opening his artery as quickly as possible,” Dr. Weslow says. “If CPR is administered before the first responders arrive, that saves lives. If the first responders have an AED, that saves lives.”

Dr. Weslow admires how well Carol responded and jumped into action to save her son. “It was a critical part of his care and recovery,” he says. “It’s so important we educate the community on how to do CPR.”

Find out why Aurora BayCare Medical Center is the first hospital in Wisconsin to receive the American Heart Association’s Mission: Lifeline® Heart Attack Receiving Center Accreditation. And learn if you might be at risk for a heart attack. Aurora BayCare offers calcium scoring, a fast, affordable heart screening that could save your life. 

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