When John Harrity turned 40, he made a bucket list of 50 things he wanted to do by the time he turned 50.
“It was really hard coming up with that many, so one of them I just wrote was to get my body fat under 10 percent,” said Harrity, who owns a patent law firm with his twin brother. “I didn’t expect I’d have to have a heart attack to do it.”
For years, Harrity had exercised seven days a week. Once, almost on a whim, he’d bought a bike and cycled with friends from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
At 49, he still played pickup basketball with friends. In fact, he was on the court in May 2016 when he started feeling short of breath and having chest pains.
“I told the guys I needed to go outside for some fresh air and that’s when I passed out,” he said. “The next thing I remember it was three weeks later.”
As Harrity lay unconscious, his friend Rocky Berndsen called 911 while another friend, James Bennin, started CPR.
“It was a scary situation because John was the fittest guy on the court,” Berndsen said. “Fortunately, the woman at 911 talked us through giving him CPR until EMS arrived.”
John Harrity (center) with friends Rocky Berndsen (left), who called 911, and James Bennin, who performed CPR after Harrity’s heart attack caused his heart to stop. (Photo courtesy of John Harrity)
Harrity had what’s known as the “widowmaker” heart attack, triggered by a blockage of the left main coronary artery that runs down the front of the heart.
That artery supplies the largest amount of blood flow to the heart, said Harrity’s interventional cardiologist Ameya Kulkarni, M.D., of the Kaiser Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical group in McLean, Virginia. “They call it the widowmaker because it’s the most deadly heart attack you can have,” he said.
Harrity, who lives in Centreville, Virginia, with his wife Eileen, daughter Jorden, 14, and son Clarke, 12, survived in large part because he was in such good physical condition.
John Harrity after his heart attack with, from left, his daughter Jorden, wife Eileen and son Clarke. (Photo courtesy of John Harrity)
“All those years of exercising had trained John’s heart to operate in an environment of low oxygen levels,” Kulkarni explained. “So even though so much of the blood flow was cut off by the clot, his heart was able to survive longer than it would have for many other people. And once he received proper medical care, he was able to recover much faster too.”
His doctors implanted a stent to open the clogged heart artery, but Harrity wasn’t completely out of the woods. The potent blood thinners he was receiving in the hospital caused bleeding into his lungs, leading to multiple organ failure.
“This was an unfortunate but known potential risk of the blood thinners he was on,” Kulkarni said.
For a while, he was attached to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, which drains blood from the body, adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide and then returns it through an artery or vein. The blood bypasses the heart and lungs, allowing the machine to do the work of those vital organs in someone who’s had a major heart attack.
Harrity spent eight weeks in intensive care and two weeks in rehab. Again, his physical fitness helped him recover quicker than he would have otherwise.
“There was one day, a Saturday, when I needed two people to help get me to the bathroom,” he recalled. “Three days later, on the Tuesday, I was able to stand up and walk there with only some slight assistance.”
Today, Harrity is almost fully recovered. He’s exercising again and recently ran his first 5K since his heart stopped. He hasn’t yet gotten back on the court, but he plans to.
“It’s amazing to think that I was unable to walk just nine months ago,” he said.
While in the hospital Harrity lost much of his muscle mass and dropped 30 pounds — but he held on to his sense of humor.