At 51 years old, Rob Gullickson thought he was in decent shape. He often worked out with weights and watched what he ate, though pretzels were always a weakness.
He grew up and lived his days neither visiting nor trusting the doctor’s office. He had no reason to worry about his health; there was no family history to say otherwise.
An energetic, family man living in Rush City, Gullickson was from the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy perhaps too many men live by.
That is, until he almost died from a massive heart attack the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2011. “Now it’s different,” he began in an interview for American Heart Month. “I have nothing but trust in that professional stranger.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack every year, while around 600,000 people die from heart disease in the United States each year—that’s one out of every four deaths. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
There is good news, however. The CDC says heart disease is preventable and controllable, and people can start by taking small steps every day to bring their family, friends and selves closer to heart health. Tips include eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, monitoring your blood pressure, not smoking, limiting alcohol use, having your cholesterol checked, managing your diabetes (if you have it) and taking your medicine.
Yet there are more lessons to be learned through Gullickson, who learned the hard way almost two years ago. He hopes his story can make a difference, even if it reaches a single life.
It was Sunday morning, Nov. 27, 2011, and he had just finished eating breakfast when his fiancé, Marie, said she had to leave to meet with another member of the family. A while later, she called to say she was on her way home.
“Good, because I don’t feel so well,’” he replied, noting discomfort in his chest.
Fearing something was indeed wrong, since Gullickson never complained of his health, Marie immediately became concerned and started asking him questions directed at his heart. A former paramedic, she let that side of her take over.
“I thought the pain in my chest was indigestion or heart burn,” he explained. “That sensation is my trigger to know it’s an emergency. I didn’t know that at the time.”
Once home, Marie made the conscious decision to help Gullickson into their pickup to make the drive south to Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming. A dispatcher for the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office, she knew it was the quickest option available.
“I was a little argumentative,“ he confessed. “For me, I really thought it was indigestion, nothing serious. It hurt to breathe, and I had pressure in the center of my chest. For every mile closer to the Wyoming exit, I remember constantly moving to eliminate the pain. I believe (Marie) knew what was happening, and she was assertive in saying, ‘Let‘s just get it checked out.’”
Upon arriving at Fairview Lakes, the medical team instantly began to hook him up to equipment and do blood work. Chest pain is never taken lightly in the Emergency Department, and it wasn’t until a doctor confirmed he was having heart attack that Gullickson accepted the fact.
“My heart was elevated,” he said of what the blood work revealed. “It took them an hour and a half to stabilize me so I could be taken by ambulance to Fairview at the U of M.”
Gullickson felt peace of mind with being admitted to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, along with the ambulance crew that transported him there.
“They were easing the pain, calming me down,” he remembered of the doctors on down to the ambulance driver and paramedic. “Whatever they did to make me stabilized, it furthered my trust. It was a long bus ride, hoping I’d make it.”
Strapped down with IVs hooked up and still in much pain, he finally got to the U. “I remember getting wheeled in, but that’s all I remember,” he noted. “The next thing I remember was coming out of a fog and seeing Marie’s face.
Gullickson had been awaking from surgery in the recovery room and was on his way up to the facility’s Intensive Care Unit. At one point, while watching the doors close between them, he didn’t know if he was going to see his fiancé again. And with that, he felt guilty for not only putting Marie through the ordeal but his daughters Derra, 24, and Nikki, 20, who were away at college at the time.
“Sitting there, they kept running through my mind,” he recalled.
In time, Gullickson learned he had a stent placed inside of him to help alleviate a blocked artery that many people call the “widow maker.” Such damage was done that his fiancé was told he had an hour to live.
So he remained in the ICU for two days, with nurses attentive to his every need. With an improving condition, he was then off to the heart care floor where even his surgeon, Dr. Wilson, checked in on him.
“‘You need to accept that you had a heart attack,” Gullickson’s doctor had told him. “It’s a humbling experience to trust a professional stranger for your well being. I was told that I had ‘macho denial.’”
He started cardiovascular rehab on the Thursday after his heart attack. A bit early for most, his doctors gave the green light to the surprise of the workers there. “So I started walking because I had to build back up,” he said.
Gullickson eventually completed the program, all 32 sessions worth, though he could have stopped at 24. “It was too much of a positive for me to stop,” he noted.
Today, he jogs three miles a day, five days a week, stretches regularly and continues to lift weights. On the weekends, he usually just runs in the morning. He also has learned to walk off any stress at work; he’s a dispatcher for a concrete cutting company out of St. Paul.
“My biggest fitness change is running,” he emphasized.
And because he’s asthmatic (running in the cold does not take well), he purchased a treadmill and an elliptical, “so there’s no excuse,” he smiled. “My schedule doesn’t allow me to go to a gym. I’ve lost almost 40 pounds since my episode.”
His diet has changed, as well. It consists of chicken and turkey, lean meats, salads, more vegetables and fruits, fish, nuts and sometimes red meat, but he has to portion. He especially has to watch his sodium intake, meaning the pretzels that he loves. “They’re my nemesis,” he said.
“Having a heart attack was surreal for everyone at the time,” said Gullickson of his family and friends. “My fiancé says I’m obsessed (with his fitness routine), but this is what I can do for me to make sure I’m there for (my family). To see the fear in my daughters’ eyes in the ICU, it’s a driving force. I’m probably more physically fit now than I was in my 20s.”
And he can’t find a thank-you card that expresses his thanks enough to all those “professional strangers,” from the folks at Fairview Lakes to the ambulance crew to those at the University of Minnesota.
“Family medical history is very important,” he said of what he’s learned from his experience with heart attack. “And doctors aren’t bad people after all. As anti-doctor as I was, it doesn’t hurt to get checked out to get direction. It’s worth humbling yourself to get checked to save your family from what I went through.”