A second chance: cardiac arrest survivor raises heart awareness

Doug and Melanie WinklerFive years ago, Doug Winkler bent over to get his wife a tissue. The next thing he remembered, he was in a hospital bed intubated and hooked up to nine IVs.

“The doctors told my wife to start looking for nursing home facilities for me because there was a 5% chance I was living through this and a 2% chance I would walk out of the hospital without any brain damage,” Winkler said.

Throughout his life, Winkler has suffered through numerous heart health issues. It started with a heart attack when he was 39 years old and began experiencing chest pains after an afternoon of paintball with his son.

“When I cooled off, the pain went away, so I started playing paintball again,” Winkler said. “My wife was concerned, so she took me to the ER that night. They told me I’d had a heart attack, and there was a blockage in my right coronary artery.

“They did a procedure called an angioplasty, which is basically using an inflated balloon to unclog the artery.”

Winkler will be the first to admit he wasn’t in the best physical shape when he had the heart attack, so it was not a surprise that his hospital discharge came with a dietary mandate. Luckily, his wife, Melalee, is a chef and embraced the challenge. She committed to helping him stick to his prescribed diet of low fat and high protein. He diligently followed the regime for several years, and it seemed like things were going well.

However, a 2011 cardiology appointment brought that optimism to a screeching halt. A nuclear stress test showed something wasn’t right. The following cath procedure found extensive blockages in his arteries that required a quadruple bypass. The recovery after the surgery was far from smooth sailing for Winkler. His diaphragm stopped working, and he was unable to breathe if he was lying down. For several months, he had to sleep sitting up to make sure he continued breathing.

“I nearly died after the surgery,” he said. “My diaphragm quit working properly, and it took nearly six months for me to be able to breathe while lying down.”

Once again, things went well for several years. Winkler was still maintaining his diet, exercising more and overall felt great.

On Oct. 20, 2018, Winkler and his wife were eating lunch in Weatherford, Texas. He was still feeling great and even carried two 35-pound bags of wood for their fireplace to the car after lunch. As they were loading the car, his wife offered to drive — an offer that would later turn out to be a lifesaving decision.

“We were on I-20 heading toward Granbury, and she sneezed,” Winkler said. “I bent over to grab her a tissue, and from that point forward, everything I remember is from what my wife told me.”

Melalee told him that his head went back, his eyes rolled back in his head, and she could immediately tell something was terribly wrong. She quickly exited and went straight to the first place she saw, a Valero gas station. Melalee, frantic, rushed inside and asked for help calling 911. As she was exiting the gas station, a couple approached Melalee and asked her if she needed help. The husband, whom Melalee describes as a guardian angel, was able to quickly begin CPR and didn’t stop until the paramedics took over — just six minutes later.

Despite the ambulance’s quick arrival, the EMT’s worked on him for over 20 minutes in the ambulance, but were not able to get a stable heartbeat. The paramedics quickly headed straight for Medical City Weatherford. When they rolled him into the emergency room, he went into atrial fibrillation, beating extremely fast and irregular from the upper chambers of the heart. The medical personnel in Weatherford stabilized him and transferred him to Medical City Hospital in Fort Worth.

“They put me in this thing called Arctic Sun,” Winkler said. “It drops your body temperature into the 80s to put your body into hyperthermia after a sudden cardiac arrest to protect vital organs.”

“I was intubated, had nine IVs going and at least one nurse with me 24/7.”

It was at this point that doctors advised Melalee to look at nursing home rehab facilities to put him in because they didn’t foresee him coming out of this without significant disabilities. The couple’s son came home from Norfolk, Va., where he was stationed by the U.S. Army, to stay with Winkler while Melalee visited a facility in Granbury.

On Thursday, six days after the cardiac arrest, Melalee received a call from Doug’s phone. She never expected to hear his voice on the other end – he woke up! He asked when she would be there and if could she bring his razor.

“I said, ‘Hey, babe’ as soon as she walked into the room, and she immediately asked if I knew who she was,” Winkler said. “I told her of course I knew who she was.”

Doctors gave him a 5% chance of living and a 2% chance of walking out of the hospital, which he did the following Saturday.

Since that day, Winkler has had three ablations and a pacemaker defibrillator put in. He sees his cardiologist twice a year, but he’s still doing well.

Winkler warns that age doesn’t matter when it comes to heart disease and sudden cardiac arrest. It doesn’t matter how healthy people are, what diet they are on or how often they exercise. Sudden cardiac arrest can happen to anyone.

Winkler is using his second chance at life to take better care of himself and share his story any chance he gets. Awareness is the first step to saving someone’s life, Winkler said. Being aware of the signs and the immediate actions to take can save a life, just like it saved his.

“I think it’s important to always remember it can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone,” Winkler said. “I was only 39 when this all started. It could happen to anyone.

“The heart is an amazing complex machine, and we have to take care of it.”

You can learn more about Winkler’s story on Feb. 13 at the Heart Histories: Understanding Cardiovascular Health Disparities, part of this month’s Healthy Habits, Healthy Heart event. He will be participating in the panel discussion and sharing his experience.

To learn more about other events this month, visit unthsc.edu/heart.

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