Nothing called the “widowmaker” is good.
If it’s a menu item at a burger place, skip it. If it’s a phrase used by your cardiologist to describe what could happen to your heart, worry.
Barry Oxford never guessed how dangerously close he was to having one of the most devastating heart attacks that anyone can experience. But with the swift heart care he received, he’s alive today.
In late April 2019, Oxford felt a strange feeling in his chest that he’d never experienced before.
“I started noticing a feeling high in my chest,” Oxford said. “It wasn’t painful or radiating. It was just a different feeling that I couldn’t attribute to anything or any activity. It would come and go, and I didn’t know what it was.
“It wasn’t debilitating. It wasn’t severe,” he added. “It didn’t stop me from doing anything. I would feel it and just think, ‘Oh, there it is again. What is that?’ It went on for about two or three weeks until I decided to have it checked out, so I scheduled an appointment with my primary care physician.”
Oxford said that was probably one of the best decisions he ever made, because it was one that likely saved his life.
His doctor ordered an electrocardiogram, or EKG, a test used to measure how well Oxford’s heart was beating.
His EKG results sparked concern for his doctor, who referred Oxford to cardiac specialist Charlie Rouse, MD, a board-certified cardiologist at West Georgia Cardiology and a member of the medical staff with Tanner Heart Care.
Dr. Rouse ordered a few additional tests to get a closer look at Oxford’s heart. He ordered a stress test and an echocardiogram.
A stress test is a physical exam that shows doctors how well a person’s heart is working, and it can also reveal blood flow problems in the heart. An echocardiogram is an imaging procedure that uses sound waves to produce images of the heart.
Dr. Rouse also sent him to the accredited chest pain center at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton to have a heart catheterization to further investigate how well his heart was working. Randy Turkel, MD, another board-certified cardiac specialist with West Georgia Cardiology, performed the procedure.
During a heart catheterization, a cardiac specialist threads a long thin tube through a vein in the arm, leg or neck to the heart to measure the blood pressure and flow around it.
On May 4, 2019, Oxford arrived at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton to have his heart catherization procedure.
During the procedure, Dr. Turkel discovered something in Oxford’s left anterior descending artery, or LAD, which is one of the heart’s main blood-suppling arteries. He found that Oxford’s LAD had a significant blockage, caused by a buildup of waxy plaque inside the artery.
Dr. Turkel quickly conferred with Christopher Arant, MD, a board-certified interventional cardiologist and cardiovascular disease specialist at Tanner Heart & Vascular Specialists, who agreed that the severe blockage in Oxford’s LAD needed immediate intervention.
Dr. Arant immediately performed an angioplasty and stenting procedure, clearing the blockage and placing a small wire mesh stent in the damaged artery to prevent future blockages.
“I was under anesthesia, but I was awake for the procedure and could see and hear things going on around me,” Oxford said. “During the procedure, Dr. Turkel looked at me and told me that I had a 99% blockage in one of my major arteries. I was totally surprised to hear that.”
The critical blockage he had in his LAD is known informally as the “widowmaker” for its severity and high risk of a fatal outcome.
“Widowmaker” heart attacks are so severe because they cut off the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart, triggering a series of life-threatening events.
“When the heart doesn’t receive the right amount of blood flow, it can set off a heart problem called ventricular fibrillation, causing the heart to beat abnormally and possibly stopping altogether, which is what happens when a person goes into cardiac arrest,” said Dr. Arant. “When the heart stops, a person can die within minutes.”
Oxford said that not ignoring that slight chest pain was a big part of why he’s sharing his story.
That feeling that he experienced in his chest is just one of a series of warning signs that could mean a heart attack is looming. Other signs could present as a tightness or pressure in the chest; a shortness of breath; or an aching that radiates from the chest to other areas such as the arms, back, shoulders, neck or jaw.
“I was shocked when they told me that it was 99% blocked,” Oxford said. “How could that be, and I didn’t have anything more than a strange feeling in my chest? I dodged a bullet that day. I am extremely blessed and thankful for the care that I received at Tanner and for the entire medical team that was there for me. Fortunately, I paid attention to the symptoms. It would have been very easy for me to disregard them because they were not debilitating, not a severe pain. The key for me was that it was not a familiar feeling. It was not something that I had felt before, and that’s why I had it checked out.”
For Oxford, now 67 and residing in Carrollton, sharing his story is a matter that he carries close to his heart.
“I am thankful that we have this level of care here in Carrollton, and I encourage people not to ignore any symptoms they’re feeling,” Oxford said. “I went to get it checked out, and it helped save my life.”
Dr. Arant frequently reminds people that heart attacks aren’t always what you see in the movies.
“It’s not always a crippling pain in your chest. It can be tightness, a slight radiating pain, nausea, unexplained fatigue — like with Mr. Oxford, sometimes you just know when something’s not right,” said Dr. Arant. “When that happens, you need to be evaluated right away. It can save your life.”
If you experience symptoms that you believe to be a sign of a heart attack, call 911 immediately, Dr. Arant warns.
Tanner has accredited chest pain centers at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton and Tanner Medical Center/Villa Rica, offering advanced heart-saving cardiac care throughout the region.
For more information about the cardiac care available at Tanner, visit TannerHeartCare.org.
Barry Oxford, 67, of Carrollton, spoke alongside Christopher Arant, MD, a board-certified interventional cardiologist and cardiovascular disease specialist at Tanner Heart & Vascular Specialists, during a recent Carrollton Dawnbreakers Rotary Club meeting where he shared his story and about the importance of not ignoring the warning signs of a potential heart attack.