Holding his newborn daughter, Piper, in his arms, John Colvin knows he’s one of the lucky ones — just a year and a half earlier in May 2010 he had a heart attack at age 31. Two months later he had a second heart attack.
Either one could have killed him or done so much damage to his heart that his life today would be much different.
A 1997 graduate of St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, Colvin said despite having a family history of heart disease (his grandfather died of a heart attack at age 49; and his father survived a heart attack when he was 53 and had quadruple bypass surgery), he never expected that he could have a heart attack in his 30s.
“I was active . . . played soccer, baseball and basketball through high school and was a starter on pretty much every team,” said Colvin, son of Larry and Loretta Colvin, Washington. “I had practiced sports every day since I was 14 years old.”
He slowed down some in college and after graduation he went to work as a computer programmer, a much more sedentary lifestyle than he had ever had. He later got married, settled in St. Charles and had his first child, Parker. She was just 9 months old when Colvin had his first heart attack.
Cramp in the Neck
Colvin remembers that day well. It was Tuesday, May 19, 2010. He had gotten home from work early, about 2 p.m., and decided it was a good day to powerwash the house and deck. He felt nothing unusual as he went about the work, and afterward came inside to have dinner.
That’s when he felt a cramp in his neck.
“It felt like a pulled muscle,” recalls Colvin. “I thought I must have strained or pulled something while I was powerwashing.”
That night he didn’t sleep well because he couldn’t get comfortable. He considered the possibility that he could be having a heart attack, but dismissed the idea because he was so young and didn’t have any “classic” symptoms.
“I wasn’t short of breath, and I didn’t have any pain in my arm,” he said.
The next morning Colvin stayed home from work, mainly because he was tired having not slept the night before. He also still had pressure in his neck.
A dose of ibuprofin helped him feel a little better, but not much, so he decided that if he still didn’t feel better the next day he would see a doctor. Nothing had changed by Thursday morning, so Colvin and his wife went to the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital.
“The pain wasn’t any worse, but it was just constantly there,” he said. “I felt like I had the flu. My whole body ached.”
When the ER staff asked what were Colvin’s symptoms — unexplained neck pain — it was only a matter of minutes before he was in a room, hooked up to an EKG machine and having blood drawn, his wife, Marilyn Colvin, recalled.
“And we had an answer within an hour,” she said. “He’d had a heart attack.”
Even though the possibility had stuck in the back of his mind through the whole experience, the news still came as a shock.
“Talk about the world doing a complete 180,” John Colvin remarked. “Then were all the worries about damage to my heart, my daughter . . . I had more life to live.
“Everything started flashing before my eyes — what could I have done differently? All the questions came in, all of the uncertainties.”
Colvin was sent to the cardiac cath lab that evening to get a measure on how badly his arteries were blocked — one was 100 percent and three others were over 95 percent. The results were surprising, said Colvin.
“My blood pressure and cholesterol had always been in the normal range,” he noted.
Since Colvin was stable, doctors waited until the next morning to perform a quadruple bypass surgery at Missouriu Baptist Medical Center in St. Louis. When the time came, Colvin said he was most concerned about his wife.
“I knew what Marilyn was going through because I remember when my dad had his heart attack,” said Colvin. “It’s the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had in my life — when they pushed him through those doors (to surgery).”
“The worst part,” Marilyn added, “is that right before they took him back, they said there was a 10 percent chance that he wouldn’t come back.”
“We were supposed to have 20 years together before we started to worry about things like this,” John remarked.
The surgery lasted four hours and went well. Colvin remembers waking up the next day.
“The surgeon told me I was the youngest person he’d ever done the surgery on,” he recalled.
The cardiologist told Colvin being so active while he was a teenager probably saved his life because it led to his body creating a lot of “collaterals” off his main arteries. Colvin described collaterals like tributaries off of a river.
Among the cards and flowers that Colvin received from well-wishers was a heart-shaped pillow he received the day of his surgery from the Mended Hearts Chapter in St. Louis. Colvin initially didn’t think much about the pillow — at least nothing good — although he came to realize it was just what he needed at the time.
“I thought, ‘I don’t need this stinking pillow,’ but I did,” he said.
“I walked around like this (arms crossed, holding the pillow to his chest) because my chest hurt and I couldn’t use my arms.”
Recovery felt like he was starting over learning how to do everything, said Colvin.
“I needed help getting up, sitting down, taking a shower, everything,” he said.
Three weeks after the surgery, Colvin found himself back in the hospital, this time with an infection in his wound that required reopening the incision.
After a round of antibiotics, Colvin was stitched up again only to have the doctor decide the stitches were only going to hold in the infection. So Colvin’s incision was reopened and left to heal from the inside out.
He came home that way with Marilyn instructed to change his wound dressings three times a day for three weeks.
“We put wet gauze on the wound so it wouldn’t scab and then dry gauze over that,” she explained.
“I had a spray bottle with wound cleaner that I had to spray into the wound and then pack tight with wet and dry gauze. Then we would tape it.”
It was a painful process, said Colvin, noting he laid on the bed clenching the sheets with a pillow over his head to endure it.
The couple were fortunate that her employer and type of job enabled her to work from home during much of the time.
Colvin had a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line put in his arm to receive antibiotics three times a day, but he soon developed an allergy to the antibiotic and was switched to an oral antibiotic.
He had the PICC line removed July 5 and two days later had his second heart attack. Colvin said he was told it was a direct result of the first surgery when the doctor scraped some of the plaque at one of the bypass sites. That later led to the blood reclotting at that spot.
The symptom was the same this time around — pain in the neck — and Colvin recognized it right away. They went straight to the ER and the panic started all over again.
Initial tests indicated that Colvin hadn’t had a heart attack, so Marilyn went home while John stayed overnight for observation. The next morning, his condition had changed.
Colvin’s cardiac enzyme levels were high, indicating he was having a heart attack right then.
Fortunately there was no additional damage to the heart and three weeks later Colvin was starting his rehab therapy.
“It was painful, but awesome,” he said. “I enjoyed the challenge, and having not done anything for nine weeks, it was great to be active again.
“It was tough. I had to walk on the treadmill slowly, pedal a bike slowly, lift 1-pound weights . . . I got to the point where I was running. Every week I got better and better.”
Colvin said he still felt weak, but knew exercise was going to have to be part of his daily routine for the rest of his life.
“It’s ongoing maintenance . . . I exercise one hour a day at least six times a week,” he said. “Anything to get my heart rate up to 140 for 45 to 60 minutes.”
Colvin said he looks for everyday tasks, things he needs to do anyway, to meet that workout requirement.
“I built a retaining wall with multiple tiers, I use a push mower to cut the grass (half acre), I carry things instead of using a wheelbarrow, things like that,” he said.
While Colvin was in rehab he came across an article about Larry Mantle, a fellow heart attack survivor who had founded the St. Charles chapter of Mended Hearts, a support group for individuals and families that have had heart-related surgery and battle heart disease.
It was the same organization that had brought him that heart-shaped pillow after his first heart attack, and Colvin wanted to be involved.
He joined the St. Charles chapter in September 2010.
“I’m always going to have heart disease, and with Mended Hearts, this is my opportunity to give back,” said Colvin.
“Our main goal is to visit hospitals, the cardiac floors, to see patients who have had surgery,” he said, noting members of the St. Charles chapter visit three hospitals in their area.
“We drop off the pillow, and if they want to talk, we hang around . . . talk to the patient, the caregiver, family members about what they can expect.”
Colvin said a member of the St. Louis chapter had stopped by to visit him that first time in the hospital, but he “wasn’t in the mood” to talk.
“I still have both of my pillows though,” said Colvin, with a smile.
The St. Charles chapter of Mended Hearts meets once a month. Guest speakers have included ER nurses, cardiologists, a regional representative of the American Heart Association, rehab pets . . .
Members also share their experience with the group, talk about what they went through and continue to live through.
“It’s an ongoing lifestyle experience,” said Colvin.
After more than a year in the group, Colvin said for him Mended Hearts has become more than just a support group.
“It’s a platform for us to help out, make other people aware,” he said.
“We’ll never cure heart disease, but we can help prevent it and educate people about it.”
To that end the St. Charles Mended Hearts chapter held a golf tournament last month to raise money for an AED (automatic external defibrillator) to donate to the Cottleville Police Department, which didn’t have any in its patrol cars.
Although AEDs aren’t useful in stopping a heart attack (which is caused by blockage) they do save lives for people experiencing cardiac arrest (when someone’s heart is out of rhythm).
The golf tourney was so successful that the Mended Hearts chapter raised $6,500 — enough money to purchase four AEDs instead of just one. Members are planning a vote to decide where the other three will be donated.
“We are so excited about the turnout of our first fundraiser and really want to thank everyone who was involved,” said Colvin, noting many of the teams were from the Washington area. “We hope next year is even better.”
Colvin’s mother, Loretta Colvin, has been so impressed with how the St. Charles Mended Hearts chapter has helped her son and his family that she is eager to see a chapter started in Franklin County.
Anyone who is interested in getting involved or serving as a co-founder can contact her by email at email@example.com.
For more information on Mended Hearts, people can visit www.mendedhearts.org.
The St. Charles chapter site is www.mendedheartsstcharles.org.