Six months ago, at 2 a.m. on a Friday morning, John Richards, 76, was awakened by the piercing, incessant bark of his 6-pound Maltese dog, Alex. "He knew something was wrong," Richards says. "He never does that-he was trying to wake me up." Richards says he picked up the dog to take him outside, but doesn't recall what happened next.
"While I was on the phone, my dad walked into the room," says Lisa. "I was shocked." Lisa spoke with the 911 operator for a few more minutes, even though Richards insisted he was fine and wanted her to cancel the call for help.
Lisa cancelled the request and hung up the phone, and Richards sat down on the sofa. "First he seemed okay," Lisa says. "Then he started getting very sweaty and restless, and his speech was slurred. I asked if he was in any pain. He said no, but asked me, 'Why am I so sweaty?'" Richards collapsed again on the sofa, and Lisa redialed 911. "His eyes rolled back and I could see the whites. It was really scary. I thought he was having a stroke."
The rescue team arrived and Richards was rushed to the nearest hospital. He lost consciousness in the ambulance and again when he arrived at the hospital. After the hospital emergency team revived Richards, they began a battery of tests and then transferred him to The Miriam Hospital, where additional tests and a catheterization revealed that plaque was clogging three of Richards' major arteries. Richards spent the weekend at The Miriam and surgeons performed a three-way bypass on Monday.
John and his wife Virginia
Though Richards, healthy and active all his life, didn't drink alcohol and had never smoked, he had a family history of heart attacks. At 55, after he retired from his first career as a middle school teacher, Richards turned his lifelong hobby of home remodeling into a home improvement business, and had a hand in all of the work, from installing windows to hanging siding. After Richards' cardiac event, his physicians told him his healthy activity had saved his life.
"Those doctors are brilliant, just brilliant," Richards says of his cardiologists, N. Christopher Kelley, MD, David Donaldson, MD, and his surgeon, James Fingleton, MD. All of the physicians and nurses who cared for him were "absolutely phenomenal. They told me step-by-step what was going on and what they were going to do next. They called my daughter I don't know how many times and kept her updated about what was going on, and they were patient with my grandson and answered all his questions. And he asks a lot of questions!"
After discharge from the hospital and several weeks' rest at home, Richards was fitted with an internal defibrillator that will deliver a controlled electric shock to his heart if its rhythm becomes irregular. Richards also began cardiac rehab at The Miriam Hospital's Center for Cardiac Fitness. At the fitness center, Richards enjoys building his cardiovascular endurance using the treadmill and cross-country ski machine, and lifting weights to build muscle strength. He says he has lost about thirty pounds and feels fantastic. "I thought I felt okay before, but I actually feel even better than I did before my heart attack."
Richards says he plans to gradually add "mall walking" to his fitness routine and begin a few small home improvement projects in his own home. "I'm going to live my life the way I did before. I'm not going to stop just because I had a heart attack." Richards says he plans to be so healthy that his defibrillator is unnecessary. "The doctors said I needed it, but I'm going to prove them wrong," he laughs.
Though his determination has not changed since his cardiac event, Richards says he does view life a bit differently now. "I feel like I can go out and do anything, but of course I'm careful not to overdo it. My life is worth more than that." Richards say Max is always looking out for him and reminding him to eat healthfully, and Alex now rarely leaves his side.
Several weeks after Richards' cardiac event, Lisa was in a coffee shop when she ran into one of the firefighters who had responded to her 911 call that Friday morning. The man cautiously asked how her father was. When Lisa told him Richards was doing well, the firefighter responded with a sigh of relief, "You know, I have to tell you, I was really shaken up. In the ambulance, your father was talking to us one second, and the next second, we thought he was gone. They don't usually make it to the hospital when that happens. Your father is a very lucky man."
Richards may argue that luck played only a small part. He says he owes his life to all those who worked together to save it-his daughter, the firefighters, the surgeons and staff at The Miriam Hospital and, most of all, a little dog with a big bark.