I had a heart attack at 65 while playing golf. Doctors call it a 'widow-maker' for its high mortality rate, but I survived it.
- Rick Hendrick was an active 65-year-old without any major health problems.
- While playing golf in September 2021, he had a massive heart attack that nearly took his life.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Rick Hendrick, who is now 66 years old. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Just over a year ago, I was going about my day without giving a thought to the condition of my heart. I worked out, ate healthily, and was in great shape at 65. It was a warm Wednesday in Pennsylvania, and after quickly checking in with work, I had planned a day of golf with friends, something I'd been doing several times a week for years. It was a day no different than any other, but on the first hole, I was surprised that I wasn't playing very well.
And that first hole was the last thing I remember from that day. Everything else from that point on was relayed to me after I had woken up in the hospital seven days later, after suffering from a massive heart attack.
It started with chest pain
On hole four, my friends told me I started experiencing chest pains but just dismissed them as indigestion. I didn't have a history of heart problems and had no reason to be concerned. My game improved after the first hole and I actually started playing quite well, but the chest pain and shortness of breath were getting worse. Friends encouraged me to take a break for one of the holes, so I put a wet towel on my neck and had a drink of water while they played. By the tenth hole, it was obvious I couldn't go on.
They called the clubhouse and the club pro came to collect me in the golf cart to take me back to the clubhouse to rest. On the way back, I asked the club pro to drop my clubs off at my truck. While he was putting them away, I collapsed in the golf cart. He rushed to pull me onto the grass and called the club's general manager, who came with a defibrillator, emergency services, and my wife.
They knew my heart had stopped and started doing everything they could to keep me alive — using CPR and the automated defibrillator to stabilize my heart — until paramedics arrived.
I had open-heart surgery
Thirty minutes later, Dr. Shailendra Singh had started operating on my heart. He had phoned my wife to tell her he thought it was too dangerous to wait for her to arrive to start and asked permission to start operating immediately.
I had experienced a massive heart attack, and during surgery, the doctor discovered that I had 100% blockage on the left side of my heart. I'd had what's called a "widow-maker" heart attack because of its high mortality rate.
Singh inserted an Impella CP with SmartAssist, the smallest heart pump in the world, into my chest before the operation — usually, it's put in after the operation is complete. He said it was the only chance I had for survival. The plan was for the Impella to give my own heart time to rest while stents were put in.
Seven days after the operation, the sedation wore off and the first person I saw when I opened my eyes was my wife. She told me all that had happened, and I listened in total disbelief. I had come so close to death and managed to escape it.
After three weeks in the hospital, I was allowed to go home and begin the recovery process. I had lost nearly 20 pounds and was told to put on weight for another minor operation, scheduled for December, to clear three other partial blockages.
Over the following months, I worked to gradually build up my strength, and in April, I went for my first round of golf after seven months of rest, physical therapy, and gentle exercise. I couldn't wait to get back on the green again. I'm now back to playing just as much as I was before the heart attack.
I've planned a yearly reunion round of golf with Dr. Singh to commemorate the day I managed to outlive a widow-maker heart attack. I feel like I've been given another chance at life — the best mulligan ever.
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