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"Widow Maker" Heart Event Turns Man's Life Around

Dustin Walker was 32 years old when he had a heart attack.

In February of 2013, after an evening of playing basketball in Corvallis, the Halsey resident was feeling especially tired.

“I just thought I was out of shape or something,” said Walker. “On the way home both my arms started hurting at the same time, but I had gotten banged up a little during the game and just thought I was sore.”

Over the next several hours Walker battled symptoms of sweating uncontrollably and severe chest pain. Walker, who lives alone, finally called his mother to take him to the emergency department.

As they arrived at Samaritan Albany General Hospital, Walker saw his hands stiffen and curve in, as if he was having a stroke.

“I was losing control of my muscles,” he recalled. “As they were checking me in, my jaw seized up and all I could say was: ‘Help.’”

As nurses hooked him up to monitors, alarms began ringing all around him.

“At that point, people started to run,” he said.

Walker was taken by ambulance to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. When he arrived, the doctor told Walker he was having a heart attack, and would need a stent. “After surgery, they told me I had a heart attack called a ‘widow maker.’”

This “widow maker” was a blockage in the left front artery of Walker’s heart.

“For most of us, this artery supplies more blood flow to the heart muscle than the other two major branches,” explained Timothy Atha, MD, the cardiac surgeon at Samaritan Heart & Vascular Institute who performed an angioplasty and placed a stent in Walker’s artery. “When this artery is occluded, people have a higher chance of dying from that injury.”

Walker spent four days in the hospital, but the real work began when he arrived home.

“I had lots of homework to do,” he explained. “I changed my diet immediately. I used to eat steak and hamburgers, frozen pizza — single guy stuff. I shopped in the frozen food aisle and didn’t really take care of myself.”

Part of Walker’s healthier lifestyle includes cardiac rehabilitation at Samaritan Albany General Hospital three times a week.

He began going four months after his heart attack.

This is where the hard work began, under the guidance of Matthew White, exercise specialist.

“I took a different approach with him than I normally do with most patients, and basically said, ‘Dude! You’re four months younger than me!’” White said. “I told him in three months I expected him to be in better shape than he was before he had the heart attack. I told him I wanted to get him back to playing basketball as soon as I felt he was ready, and that I expected him to work hard for me. I told him to start that day, not just with exercise but with his diet too.”

Walker listened and immediately began to make changes to his diet.

“I eat a whole bunch of foods now that I had never tried before,” he said. “To learn how to shop in the produce section was an eye-opening experience. But it’s not the easiest thing for me. I come from a family of bigger people. We love to eat and we’re not extremely healthy, so for me, making the change of avoiding cake and cupcakes and brownies was difficult. But now I’m seeing such great results it has become a way of life. Change is necessary so I’m just going after it.”

He also worked very hard at the cardiac rehab gym.

“He progressed quickly,” White said. “As long as his heart rate and blood pressure were within guidelines we increased the intensity. I taught him how to monitor his own heart rate so he wouldn’t have to be scared that he was working too hard in a basketball game or when going for a jog. He handled pretty much everything I threw at him, after a while I even had him doing a lot of things I do in my own workouts.”

Walker continues his intensive workout routine, even though the requirements of cardiac rehabilitation have been met.

“My prescribed rehab actually ended in September, but I still go three times a week for at least an hour,” he said.

Walker continues going to cardiac rehab for not only for himself, but also to help others.

“It was great to see him really get into it, to transform himself,” White said. “But what was also so great with Dustin was how quickly he shared his own experiences and encouraged the other patients in the gym. He elevated the atmosphere in the gym and everyone benefited, which is hard to simulate.”

Like all cardiac rehab patients, Walker is welcome to continue working out at the Samaritan Albany General Hospital cardiac rehabilitation gym through the cardiovascular health and prevention program.

“I could go anywhere to work out but I like to meet all the new people,” he says. “They are where I was six months ago — afraid. I didn’t know what to expect on my first day and I worried. Do they know what they’re doing? Will they push me too hard? I learned right away to trust. I was introduced to people when I first came and it’s a comforting feeling to know that someone else has been where you are. This program really works for that reason, so I go so I can help others.”

Less than a year after his heart attack, Walker is back to playing basketball with his friends twice a week.

“I play the whole game,” he brags. “I was scared at first to play again but now sometimes I’ll forget the heart attack ever even happened. I’ll just go and go. Then afterward I’ll remember. Sometimes it seems like maybe it was just a bad dream.”