Beating the Widow Maker

Dan Weikel, 60, a lifelong surfer and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, recalls the heart attack he survived against the odds.

I’ve exercised regularly for decades, avoided fatty foods, and my family did not have a history of heart disease. At 60, I still wear the same pant size I did in college.

Then, early on Jan. 30, 2010, I surfed for a couple of hours at Bolsa Chica and returned home to Long Beach—a halfway point between The Times’ Los Angeles and Orange County offices, where I’ve worked for more than 22 years. I made a sandwich and settled into the couch to watch the tennis finals between Serena Williams and Justine Henin at the Australian Open.

During the first set, I noticed a dull ache in my wrists and jaw. There was some moderate chest pain and I started to sweat. The queasiness was like nothing I’d ever felt.

I quickly opened my wife Marla’s laptop and Googled “heart attack symptoms.” Bad news. I had at least five out of the eight listed.

“This just can’t be happening,” I thought.

When I asked Marla to drive me to the hospital, she told our 12-year-old son that I needed to have something checked at the doctor’s. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll probably be back in a little bit.”

I was at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center for 10 days. I had suffered a heart attack, one for the medical journals. Doctors found that blood had clotted at the top of my left main coronary artery, which supplies blood to the heart muscles. A tiny piece of coagulated blood had broken off and traveled to the bottom of the artery, where it blocked a capillary and produced the attack, which is almost always fatal.

Amazingly, I felt fine in the hospital—except for the potential time bomb in my chest. Though the heart muscles weren’t damaged, the clot could have been deadly if a large enough piece had broken off and obstructed the lower part of the artery. My cardiologists theorized that my heart had been working hard while surfing and the surge of blood caused some plaque to break off. The clot likely formed because I was a little dehydrated and had factor V Leiden—a genetic condition previously unknown to me—that caused my blood to coagulate more than normal.

My condition was extremely rare. My doctors had never handled a clot like mine and they couldn’t do a stent or bypass. They consulted with physicians at UCLA, Scripps Hospital, UCI, and a prominent cardiologist in Chicago. Doctors dropped by my room, including the head of emergency medicine. About a dozen physicians attended my battery of heart scans, and the hospital held a conference to discuss my case.

After the clot was dissolved with blood thinners, my cardiologist told me that I’d dodged a very large bullet. The left main coronary artery isn’t known as “the widow maker” for nothing.

What struck me about the heart attack was that something can get you—even kill you—no matter what you do. I realized that I was more vulnerable than I thought. At my age, that’s perhaps a good thing.

I also grew to appreciate my wife, family, friends, and colleagues at The Times a little more. They turned my first days at the hospital into a party, filling my room with conversation, laughter, get-well cards, and better food than I could ever get from the hospital cafeteria. Since my discharge, my appetite for living has grown more intense. I want to read more, surf more, ski more, play music louder, and throw the baseball around a bit longer when I play catch with my son.

The night before my release, a hematologist, a former surfer, said he liked that I was active, but suggested I start acting my age: “You don’t take an old car out of the garage and run it up and down the street at full speed do you?”

“Sometimes,” I said.

Widow-maker heart attacks claimed NBC journalist Tim Russert at 58 in 2008, and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darrell Kile at 33 in 2002.

Photography by Jason Wallis

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.

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