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Your Healthy Family: Heart attack survivor thankful so much this Thanksgiving

Posted at 4:09 PM, Nov 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-22 18:21:03-05

COLORADO SPRINGS — It’s not every day you get to meet people who saved your life, or the life of a loved one. That’s the chance Bret Vaughn and his family had in early October, after he suffered a massive heart attack following his second bull ride at the El Paso County Fair rodeo in July in Calhan.

Your Healthy Family: The close call this cowboy never imagined

In our last story, we learned Bret had a blockage in the large artery that runs down the front of his heart. This type of heart attack is generally known as "the widowmaker" that essentially isn’t much different from other types of heart attacks, but is far more critical. While the old-fashioned name “widowmaker” suggests that it strikes men and makes wives widows, women can also suffer this type of heart attack. When the left anterior artery (LAD) of the heart is blocked, the heart muscle it supplies with blood is starved and the heart can stop beating with little to no warning. Under those circumstances, when a patient goes into cardiac arrest outside of the hospital, the survival rate is roughly 5% to 6%.

Your Healthy Family: How bullrider survived heart attack that could have easily killed him

While Bret wasn’t in the hospital when his heart stopped, he did have everything go his way that day, beginning with himself and his family. Bret had previously had a minor heart attack and was treated for it. He was following doctor's instructions. He had been prescribed nitroglycerin pills that he was instructed how to use when needed. He knew his heart history, and so did his family. When he knew he wasn’t feeling well he didn’t try to ‘man up’ and hide his symptoms. When his wife and daughter noticed he was not himself and seemed to be in pain, they also did not write off the warning signs. His daughter alerted the paramedics who were on standby at the rodeo.

Kelly Fowler (Volunteer EMS) and her partner Chloe Cecil (EMT/FireFighter) with Calhan Fire were assessing Bret when he went into cardiac arrest. They were able to immediately begin efforts to resuscitate him, along with other first responders on scene who all began working to save Bret’s life. After about 20 minutes of CPR and defibrillation, his heart began beating again, and he was flown from Calhan to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs, where Dr. Christopher Manhart was able to quickly clear the artery using balloons and stents.

There are many lessons to be learned for all of us from Bret’s story. They range from gratitude, showing gratitude to others, educating ourselves on the basic skills of CPR and other life support tools that may be available to us and to be proactive about your own heart health.

When Bret and his family had the chance to reunite with the people who saved his life, it was an opportunity to say thank you in so many ways. Bret tells me he looks at each new day as a second chance. “I have always felt like God has a purpose for you and if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. It doesn’t matter what happens - so he obviously has something else in mind for me. I work to help people every day of my life so I’m still here to do something for somebody.”

The reunion was also something to remind the many first responders and medical professionals who cared for him how meaningful their efforts are. Captain Ginger Flynn, (Volunteer Paramedic) with Calhan Fire says, “That was a real gift to have (Bret and his family) come out and say thank you and for us to see all of the effort that we put in to that call really paid off. He is now going to have potentially years of a good quality of life ahead of him to spend with his family and to do all of those things that he wants to do. It was a real gift for them to be able to come out and show us face to face what we did mattered in that situation.”

Kelly Fowler says of the reunion with Bret and his family: “It was kind of surreal because that was the first time in my short career I’ve ever been able to talk to somebody that I had witnessed go into cardiac arrest. Just to see that his quality of life is still there and he wasn’t for a time. He is still able to live the life that he wants to and that’s really cool.”

Dr. Manhart would like to see more patients be able to have an outcome like Bret’s and stressed the importance of knowing basic lifesaving skills. “He’s (Bret) extremely lucky and that’s why we’re sharing his story. Unfortunately a very low percentage of patients survive a cardiac arrest outside of the hospital, the survival rate is well less than 10%. It’s a testament to early responders at the scene with EMS and then quick response and transport to the hospital and the work here in the hospital as well.”

Capt. Flynn feels the big takeaway from Bret’s story for others is that with some basic training and certification, others can be prepared to make a difference when a heart attack strikes. She says, “I would say he (Bret) had a good outcome because everything really lined up for him, he recognized something was wrong he told somebody and we knew CPR. We also had the electricity, but that could’ve been the same in any environment with EMS not there if bystanders knew CPR and knew where to find an AED (automated external defibrillator) and knew how to use it. He could’ve potentially had the same really good outcome even if the fire department wasn’t there.”

Another lesson that can be learned from Bret’s story is do what you can right now to be proactive and improve your heart health. There is no guarantee that any set of behaviors will 100% prevent a heart attack, but if you’re doing all that is within your control, your chances of surviving a heart attack are much better.

Dr. Manhart says, “For sure there are factors that feed into our overall heart health and from my standpoint we try to optimize the reversible factors, the factors we can control. Obviously there is a large genetic component to a number of patients who have heart disease, especially people who have heart disease at a young age. So when you come and see me in the office we’re trying to identify those risk factors so that we can really optimize them. Whether it’s weight, diet, blood pressure, cholesterol we try to optimize those the best we can. When it comes to outcomes, I think there’s two components to that. One is any time somebody has a cardiac event or has significant cardiac disease I tell them your functional status is always a good predictor of how you will do. So if you have a very good healthy lifestyle going into your cardiac event it’s a better prognosis long-term for sure. Even though people may have had a previous heart attack or had significant heart failure or weakening of their heart, still - activity and encouraging people to improve their functional status definitely helps them in the long term.”

Finally about Bret’s second chance at life, the former professional bull rider tells me he hopes he will get the chance to have one last bull ride, that he can remember. He also knows that’s something he will need to convince his wife, Trisha, and others into - like a smiling Dr. Manhart, when I ask if Bret will ride again says, “I’m not sure. I think that's a million dollar question there. He is a lucky man and that’s a discussion for Bret and I - but for sure he’s a fantastic story, but we’ll talk about his future activities for sure, (laughs).”

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