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Cardiologist opens up about his own heart attack: 'I went through denial'

He was enjoying a vacation day when the chest pain suddenly began.
/ Source: TODAY

As a cardiologist, Dr. William Wilson talks to patients about heart attack symptoms every day, but when his own chest pain began, his first reaction was disbelief.

“Deep down, I knew what it was, although I went through the usual denial for probably about 10 minutes because I was thinking that this can’t be happening to me,” Wilson, who practices at Parkview Health in Fort Wayne, Indiana, told TODAY.

“I was trying to talk myself out of it... but the pain didn’t let up. It just kept getting worse and worse.”

Wilson’s heart attack, which happened in January 2018, caught him totally off guard, he said. He was 63 at the time, did not smoke, and did not have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. He had a normal body weight and exercised “like crazy.”

His only risk factor was a family history of heart disease — his father had a heart attack and a stroke.

Four years after Wilson’s ordeal, he is sharing his story to help others stay vigilant for symptoms and be aware that heart attacks can happen even if a person is doing everything right to prevent them.

‘I was thinking, I’m going to die’

Wilson had a vacation day when his heart problems began. His wife was scheduled to meet her trainer at the gym that morning, so he came along and was just casually walking around when the chest pain began.

“I don’t want people thinking that I was at the gym and really hitting it hard and just going crazy, working out too hard — that wasn’t it at all,” Wilson said.

“This exact same thing could have happened at the grocery store or at home because I wasn’t doing anything strenuous.”

Besides the chest pain, Wilson noticed he was dripping wet — sweating like he had never perspired before, he recalled. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he noticed “this horrible gray color.”

This does not happen to cardiologists, he thought. But it was happening: Wilson became one of the 805,000 Americans each year to have a heart attack. Other symptoms can include shortness of breath; pain in the jaw, neck or back; and lightheadedness.

Before he sought help, Wilson had an intense urge to go to the bathroom — a common phenomenon caused by changes in the body that happen during a heart attack. The crisis affects the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions that a person has no control over, like sweating. People often feel the need to urinate or defecate when it happens, he noted.

There was no one in the gym restroom when Wilson felt compelled to use it and he began to imagine the worst.

“I was thinking, I’m going to die in this stupid bathroom and nobody is going to know it, they won’t find me for half an hour,” he recalled.

“That just scared me, so I just got out of there as quick as I could and that’s when I went and found my wife. I decided right then I’ve got to get out of here.”

Immediate treatment to prevent heart damage

She drove Wilson to the hospital where he works — generally, it's best to call 911 and wait for an ambulance, he pointed out — and he received immediate cardiac catheterization. He had experienced a ruptured plaque that reduced blood flow to his heart muscle, but the heart attack turned out to be mild because he was able to get treatment right away.

“All heart attacks are potentially serious and potentially life threatening,” Wilson warned. “(But) we got in there soon enough that there was no damage, so I was very fortunate in that regard.”

Wilson recovers in the hospital after the heart attack.
Wilson recovers in the hospital after the heart attack.Courtesy Dr. William Wilson

Four years later, he said he feels “absolutely great.” The main change in his life is adding medication to his routine — he now takes a low dose of aspirin, a statin and blood pressure medicine to control mild hypertension that has developed since the heart attack.

He tries to do more cardio when he exercises and eats a Mediterranean diet as much as possible. He’s not a vegetarian, but opts for fish and chicken rather than red meat. The focus is on eating fresh food, and staying away from fast and processed food.

Wilson recommended living a heart-healthy lifestyle without obsessing about heart disease risk factors that can’t be changed, like family history. The main advice is to keep body weight normal, eat a nutritious diet, avoid smoking, and keep cholesterol and blood pressure in normal ranges.

“Somebody out there can say, 'Yes, but that didn’t help you.' Well, that’s true, it didn’t. And that’s why I say, it’s not a perfect world. Stuff happens. People get cancer out of the blue, it’s nobody’s fault. It just happens,” Wilson noted.

“The lesson here is that despite all the things we do — identify people who are very high risk — we’re not perfect, and there are heart attacks that happen in people who are relatively low risk.”