Climbing Back from a Heart Attack

Published in Greater Washington Area - Spring/Summer 2022 and Greater Washington Area - Winter 2021/2022

At age 48, Chris Emerson experienced two things he never saw coming – a heart attack, and months later, a climb up Mount Rainier. With no family history of heart disease, an average weight, cholesterol levels kept in check with medication and clocking 10,000 steps daily walking to work, his risk seemed low. But on Jan. 27, 2021, Emerson learned otherwise.

“I was sprinting uphill when my lungs began to hurt,” recalls Emerson. “Having just started a running regimen the month before, I decided I pushed my lungs, and the cold was a factor.”

The next day, the icy sensation in his lungs returned during Emerson’s walk to work. Every breath brought a sharp pain. When that same pain woke him the next day at 3 a.m. in the warmth of his home, Emerson knew he had to call his doctor. His doctor told him that when your body wakes you up in the middle of the night with chest pain, you need to listen and go to the emergency room.

“When I got to the hospital, I was in a cold sweat and in so much pain I couldn't even sign the paperwork,” says Emerson. “I remember them saying, ‘you're having a heart attack right now.’ Everyone was moving so fast as I was being wheeled into the Suburban Hospital Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory. They gave me local anesthesia, and I was awake for the cardiac catheterization.

“During the procedure, they discovered one of my arteries was 100% blocked – preventing any blood flow. I was still experiencing chest pain, but when they placed the stent to hold the artery open, it was instant relief from the pain. When I was in recovery, I couldn’t help but think about the overwhelming magnitude of what had just happened to me. I made the promise to start taking better care of myself.”

Emerson’s cardiologist and Medical Director of Suburban Hospital’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory and Cardiac Rehab Dr. Greg Kumkumian says, “Most people Chris’ age who have a heart attack have significant risk factors for coronary artery disease such as a strong family history, a history of smoking or diabetes. Chris is a good example of someone with limited risk factors who had a heart attack that would have been hard to predict. The fact that he got to the hospital where emergency treatment could be rendered quickly went a long way toward a good outcome.

“So many of our patients get help late because they're anxious or in denial. Do not hesitate to seek medical care. There's no shame in going to the ER and being told you’re OK. We have so many tools to help patients live long, healthy lives. You can recover from these events, both psychologically and physically, with good support from friends and family and from your team of health care providers, including your cardiologist, nurses and exercise physiologists who take care of you in cardiac rehab.”

For five months, Emerson attended cardiac rehab at Suburban Hospital. “I dreaded starting rehab, but it turned out to be the best thing for me,” says Emerson. “It was the right speed and intensity to reset my thinking about my physical well-being. After a month, I was finally able to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes consistently. I had never run two miles, and here I was doing it after a heart attack. Cardiac rehab built a habit for me and was the foundation for me being fit now.”

Jeanmarie Gallagher, manager of Cardiac Rehab at Suburban, says, “Cardiac rehab has been shown to decrease mortality by up to 40%. Patients are surrounded by fellow patients who have been through the same thing providing a natural support system. Knowing that we were watching and monitoring Chris and pulling the reins if he was going too hard was a huge relief for him. That gave him the confidence to be able to do that for himself outside of our space.”

Emerson continued to train following his graduation from cardiac rehab with the goal to climb Mount Rainier.

“Dr. Kumkumian encouraged me, which was important because you feel like you are damaged goods after a heart attack,” says Emerson. “Jeanmarie and the rehab staff made sure I was within my guardrails as I headed for that horizon.”

In September, with Dr. Kumkumian’s approval, Emerson began his trek up the mountain. “The three-and-a-half-day journey scrambling up and down rocks and ice and crossing crevasses felt good, even though my heart rate was elevated because of the elevation and exertion. I learned a lot about myself along the way and discovered that I can live fully after a heart attack.”