John Hammonds may be the last person you would expect to have a heart attack. Nearly 6 feet tall and a lean 165 pounds, the retired nuclear power plant operator and martial arts instructor stayed active riding his road bicycle, training German Shepherds, doing uphill wind sprints and keeping up with his grandchildren.
And yet, on Aug. 25, 2016, John suffered a serious heart attack, the kind doctors call "the widow maker".
Thanks to St. Mary's, he not only survived, he continues to thrive.
"Friends call and ask me how I feel and I say, 'For somebody who's supposed to be dead, I'm feeling pretty good.' Maybe that's a little morose, but I feel like I've earned it," he says.
Active and loving it
John has never been a couch potato. He went from the U.S. Navy into a 27-year career in nuclear power plant operations with The Southern Company. Working at Plant Edwin I. Hatch near Vidalia, Ga., he ran the nuclear facility's engineering department, moved to operations, and then went into training. At the end of his career, he traveled as an on-loan crisis management educator with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and did some consulting.
During many of those years, he also taught marital arts and trained protection dogs. He let go of both in the 1990s to focus on family and his career, but hoped to resume dog training when he retired.
"Now I train dogs, raise bees, chase grandchildren, things like that," the Bogart resident says. "I'm blessed to be able to do that."
After stepping away from martial arts instruction, John fell into a low spot physically. He didn't like it, so when a friend in Vidalia invited him to join a bike ride, he did. On that first ride, his friend dropped him, the cycling term for leaving him behind.
"I'm not one to walk away from a challenge," John says. "It wasn't long before I dropped him. I was riding about 100 miles a week in Vidalia."
In October 2012, an opportunity arose for John and his wife, Kristi, to move to the Athens area to be closer to their eldest daughter and her family. They settled in a beautiful home in Jackson County. But after moving, John's miles on the bike declined. In 2016, even though Northeast Georgia was suffering through the hottest summer on record, he was determined to start rebuilding. On Aug. 25 he set off on a 15-mile ride. It was hot, but he felt okay.
When he got home, though, he didn't cool down like normal, and as he walked up the hill to his house, he had a moment of dizziness and nausea. "That's not right," he thought, but it passed quickly. He ran a few wind sprints up the hill in front of his home and felt better. He went inside, took a shower, and then drove with Kristi to a sporting goods store on the Atlanta Highway.
On the way there, his left arm began to hurt. In the parking lot, Kristi said, "You don't look good." He said he would be all right after he walked around a little. A few steps later, he gave her the keys. "Take me to the hospital," he said, thinking he was suffering from heat stroke.
Increasingly alarmed, Kristi drove toward Athens. John was rapidly feeling worse. His arm hurt. His chest hurt. He broke out in a cold sweat and was squirming with discomfort. When they reached the Atlanta Highway sign for St. Mary's, he told Kristi, "Take me there."
It was a good choice. St. Mary's is an accredited Chest Pain Center with PCI, the technical term for balloon angioplasty and stent implantation. Despite his deteriorating condition, he walked into the Emergency Department and began routine check-in. But when he doubled over, he was rushed in for an emergency EKG. The readout was clear: heart attack.
John remembers being given aspirin and nitroglycerin. He also remembers Charles Neckman, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Oconee Heart and Vascular Center, asking him a lot of questions: What are your symptoms? When did they start? Do you have a family history of stroke or heart attack? Turns out, he did.
New lease on life
Within minutes of walking through St. Mary's doors, John was in the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory. Under twilight anesthesia, he remembers watching the monitors as Dr. Neckman used the cath lab's sophisticated technology to find a blocked blood vessel in John's heart, reopen it, and implant a medicated stent.
"I could see where the blood vessel looked like it just stopped, and then blood started flowing again," John recalls.
The procedure resolved a 100 percent blockage of John's left anterior descending artery (LAD), which is the largest artery providing oxygen and nutrients to the muscle tissue that makes the heart contract, pumping blood. It's called the widow maker because a complete blockage in the LAD can result in death within minutes.
Blockages usually form slowly over time. As the affected spot in the blood vessel becomes narrower, blood flow slowly declines. Looking back, John remembers feeling just a little less energetic than usual in the weeks leading up to his heart attack. Eventually, the artery becomes so narrow that a clot forms and completely blocks the artery.
Fortunately, at the moment John's LAD became fully blocked, he was already in St. Mary's Emergency Department, minutes away from the cardiac catheterization procedure that would save his life.
"John's experience shows us two things," said Dr. Neckman. "John shows the life-saving importance of getting to a hospital fast when heart attack symptoms begin. John also demonstrates how being fit can make a difference in the body's ability to keep functioning under extreme stress. If he hadn't been in such good condition, I'm not sure he would have had such a good outcome."
John stayed at St. Mary's for about four days to make sure it was safe for him to return home. Six weeks later, he came back for a nuclear stress test that showed no additional signs of coronary artery disease. While his heart has some scar tissue from his heart attack, it is still strong. In late November, Dr. Neckman gave him unrestricted clearance to return to cycling, running, dog training and chasing his grandchildren.
"Had I not gotten to St. Mary's emergency room and had Dr. Neckman not put in that stent in time, I wouldn't be talking to you," he says. "St. Mary's saved my life."