Men & Heart Disease: Don't Ignore the Warning Signs
I hated to be on the receiving end, but it was actually quite impressive. It's like I was a NASCAR car and they were the pit crew. They all came running in and were all communicating with each other. They each had a job to do and they did it flawlessly.
People may not recognize Steve Falat's face but they know the voice.
The booming baritone behind the microphone at special gatherings and charitable events all over the region. The voice that builds on the pre-game excitement at Saluki football and basketball games asking, "Southern Illinois, are you ready?"
The voice that was almost silenced by a heart attack in December 2018.
The Warning Signs
Like many others, the 55-year-old was enjoying a much-needed Christmas break. It had been a hectic year. As regional market manager for River Radio, Falat oversees a number of broadcast stations with formats ranging from talk to Top 40. Also, as the long-time public address announcer for Saluki sports, his calendar was full, not to mention his service on boards, committees and his frequent lending of that voice to civic events in need of an emcee.
Two days after Christmas, Falat felt like he had a pulled muscle in his chest, but shrugged it off.
"I got a deep tissue massage the day before – back, neck and shoulders,"he recalled. “I just assumed she pushed on me too hard. I didn't think much more of it."
Falat mentioned the soreness to his wife, Jolene, at lunch on Thursday.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he remembers telling her, “but I’m just having some weird pains. It’s like a muscle strain in my chest and my elbow, well, it feels like tennis elbow. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Jolene suggested he get checked out.
“Being the guy I am, I said, ‘No, it’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
Later that evening, the pair was watching a movie, but Steve didn’t feel right.
“I really couldn’t concentrate on the movie because it was really bothering me at that point. We were sitting on the couch and I was fidgeting; I just couldn’t get comfortable,” he said.
Falat remembers a fleeting thought about signs of a heart attack.
“The traditional signs you think of – the crushing feeling in the chest that radiates down your arm – that’s not how it was. It was just different. It was odd,” he said. “I kept on fidgeting and Jolene went online looking at the signs of a heart attack. I was saying, ‘No, no, no. That’s not it. You’ve got to stop reading that.’”
Looking for some relief, Steve stood up.
“Ooooh, that made it worse,” he reported.
Laying on the floor next to the sofa didn’t help, either. Getting up slowly, her otherwise healthy husband told Jolene that something wasn’t right and she should take him to the hospital.
Enter Prairie STAT Heart
Halfway to SIH Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, Steve broke out in a cold sweat and the feelings changed. He described it as a two-ton elephant sitting on a bowling ball right over his heart. Jolene was right. Immediately at the emergency department, Steve was told he was having a heart attack and the Prairie STAT Heart Program went into action.
“I hated to be on the receiving end, but it was actually quite impressive,” Steve remembered. “It’s like I was a NASCAR car and they were the pit crew. They all came running in and were all communicating with each other. They each had a job to do and they did it flawlessly.”
Their patient, however, was in denial. The man who makes his living with words was, to put it mildly, very colorful with his language.
“I was in total disbelief that this was happening. I literally kept my eyes closed, thinking that it wasn’t real… ‘You’ve got to be #$%&ing kidding me!’ and ‘I can’t #$%&ing believe this!’ and more.”
That’s when Emergency Department Registered Nurse Mark Lipe – a man about the same size as Steve – sat down next to him.
“Steve, your German is impeccable,” the nurse told him and it made a difference to the patient.
“That’s what I needed. That’s my personality, I needed the comic relief. In the midst of all of the craziness, he was keeping it light,” Steve recalled. Yet, the disbelief and language continued. “I’m too #$%&ing young for this!”
Lipe chimed in again. “Yes, you’re young – and beautiful,” he told the patient, eliciting a smile. And then he said something that put Steve at ease: “Steve,” the RN paused for effect. “You’re having a really bad day. But for me, this is Thursday. We do this every day. You’re in great hands.”
“That was perfect timing and the perfect thing to say to me,” Steve said. “That was when I realized it was really happening and to let them take care of things.”
Less than an hour after arriving at the emergency department, Steve was underwent a procedure in the catheterization lab where Prairie Cardiovascular Interventional Cardiologist Raed Al-Dallow, MD, removed the blockage and placed a stent in the affected artery.
“I remember Dr. Al-Dallow saying, ‘Your heart attack is no more. You’re good to go,’ and my response was, ‘That’s it? You’re done?’ I was surprised at how it was so quick and noninvasive. They did a major procedure and I really didn’t know it even though I was fully awake.”
Dr. Al-Dallow said a fissure – a small tear in the plaque that lines an artery and creates a small blood clot, caused Steve’s heart attack. The clot was the reason for the chest and arm pain.
“A few days later a fissure can become a total blood clot and that turns into a heart attack,” Dr. Al-Dallow explained.
Dr. Al-Dallow says about half of all heart attacks begin this way, especially in those people who show no signs of heart disease. While there is no way to prevent a fissure, there are ways to reduce the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
“There are a variety of risk factors that can product the probability of these events,” he explained. “There are several things known to reduce the probabilities of those plaques and some may actually cause regression of plaque buildup. Dr. Al-Dallow said that statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs are effective. So are diets low in fat, fried and processed foods. Regular exercise is vital as well.
After the Heart Attack
Steve was discharged from the hospital a couple of days later and began work with SIH Cardiopulmonary (CVP) Rehabilitation to speed his recovery. He also made the recommended lifestyle changes, which included a lower-fat diet and more exercise. Since then, Steve has come to grips with what happened and reflected on the care he received.
“What happened to me can literally happen to anybody,” he said. “We have to be aware of that and realize how lucky we are to have the right people with the right skills right here. I don’t think we realize how fortunate we are.”
He thinks, too, about the question he asks before Saluki games and if it applies to problems of the heart:
“Southern Illinois, are you ready?”
With professionals like Dr. Al-Dallow and the SIH Prairie Heart Institute, Falat’s answer – in that familiar, mellow voice – is a resounding “Yes!”