Nearly two months after suffering a near-fatal heart attack, "The Biggest Loser" trainer Bob Harper described the harrowing moment he collapsed in the gym.
"I was in full cardiac arrest,'' Harper told Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview on TODAY Tuesday. "My heart stopped. Not to be dramatic, but I was dead. I was on that ground dead."
That Sunday morning, Feb. 12, Harper, 51, had joined friends at the gym. After his regular workout, he dropped to his knees, then fell to the floor and stopped breathing.
"I had what they call a 'widow-maker,''' he said. "It was a 6 percent survival rate, and the fact that there were doctors in the gym when I had the heart attack saved my life."
In a quick-thinking move that likely saved Harper’s life, one of his coaches immediately located two doctors in the gym who were able to perform CPR and administer a defibrillator, a device which delivers a dose of electric current to the heart. Paramedics arrived quickly and used the defibrillator on him for a third time before rushing him to the hospital.
"It was super scary for me because I woke up and I was so confused,'' he said. "I was like Dory from 'Finding Nemo' because I had this short-term memory, so I was reliving the heart attack over and over again.
"I was like, wait, why am I here? What happened to me? And 10 minutes later I was asking the same thing and getting super emotional."
During sudden cardiac arrest — which is caused when the heart's electrical system suddenly malfunctions — the heart stops beating and blood is no longer pumping through the body or the brain. Death can occur within minutes. Harper probably survived the event because of his excellent physical fitness and the immediate medical attention.
However, the fact that he was in such terrific shape also made having a heart attack at 51 that much more stunning.
"It was hugely shocking for me,'' he said. "I've learned a lot about myself. I've learned a lot about the fact that genetics played a part in this. It is so important to know your health."
Harper encouraged others to get regular check-ups even if they are dedicated to fitness like him.
More than 326,000 people suffer an out-of-the-hospital sudden cardiac arrest each year, according to the American Heart Association. The survival is an estimated 10 percent, although that may increase to about 30 percent if treated quickly with a defibrillator, as Harper was.
Cardiac arrest can also occur without warning, although Harper now recalls having dizzy spells in the weeks prior. He has a family history of heart disease — his mother died of a heart attack.
"I think about before the heart attack I was having like dizzy spells and I thought, maybe I should've really taken that more seriously,'' he said. "It's been a huge wake-up call for me."
While in the hospital, Harper was in a medically induced coma for two days and had two stents placed to keep his coronary arteries open and reduce the risk of a future heart attack.
He is now working out under his doctor's supervision and expects a complete recovery. He walks about an hour every day — a major change from his previous rigorous routines— and has been sharing his progress on his Facebook page. Although his new pace of life is certainly an adjustment and he has coped with some depression, Harper is feeling "much better" and is careful to take the time to appreciate every day.
"It's been hard,'' he said. "I'm going through some depression. You really face your mortality. And I'm really understanding what's important in life."