A Second Chance at Life
Oak Lawn Native Mike Stillman Grateful
to be Alive after having a Heart Attack
Mike Stillman with his children,
Claire and John.
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Mike Stillman has two birthdays – January 31, the day he was born, and January 23, the day he died of a heart attack and was brought back to life by the Emergency Department staff at Palos Hospital.
“I had the best birthday ever! God must have had bigger plans for me,” Mike says. “I could have easily been dead right now but because of many interlocking factors I’m here. I am so incredibly blessed and happy.”
A life changer
The day of his heart attack began like any other work day for Mike, an Oak Lawn native who was 44 at the time. He took his two children, Claire, 14, and John, 13, to school and headed to work. But that’s when everything changed.
At the office, he started feeling chest fullness and pains. “I felt an incredibly out-of-breath feeling like I had been playing basketball,” says Mike, a lawyer at the Evergreen Park firm of Odelson & Sterk. “I had just completed a conference call that went well, so I thought I was feeling an adrenaline boost.”
As the day progressed, the pain came and went, and he got incredibly thirsty. Around noon, a coworker told him he was limping and looked pale. He soon found walking up the stairs took a lot of work.
His coworkers urged him to go to the hospital, but he had an important meeting in the afternoon that he didn’t want to miss. If he still felt bad after that, he said he would go to the hospital.
For lunch, he ate his “last cheeseburger and fries” and that’s when he started feeling really bad. He spoke to his aunt on the phone, and she insisted he get to the hospital immediately.
“My daughter was born at Palos, plus I knew they have an excellent cardiac care team,” he says. “I remember vividly coming off Southwest Highway and I started seeing stars. I just kept thinking, ‘Please God get me there.’”
Once he arrived at the hospital, everything went fast. An EKG showed he was having a heart attack. A few minutes later, he went into ventricular fibrillation, the most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance. When this happens, the lower chambers quiver and the heart can’t pump blood, causing cardiac arrest.
Jen Davis, a charge nurse in the Emergency Department, remembers the day Mike arrived at the hospital. “Just before he went into v-fib, he told one of the nurses ‘Tell my kids I love them,’” she says. “That’s when it really hits home.”
The Emergency Department team, led by Stephen Chester, D.O., feverishly worked to bring him back. Dr. Chester performed CPR and Jen used the defibrillator. “It took all of us to save his life,” Jen says. “Dr. Chester was there the whole time talking Mike through what was happening.”
When he woke, Mike asked Dr. Chester if he died and Dr. Chester told Mike that he did. “I saw the light and a sound. It was very powerful,” Mike says. “I think all of us really wonder about our faith and if there is something there. I can certainly say I’m now at peace.”
Mike was wheeled to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab where a coronary angiogram revealed 100 percent blockage in Mike’s circumflex artery. Interventional cardiologist Noel Camba, M.D., performed an emergency angioplasty and placed a stent in Mike’s blocked artery to improve blood flow to the heart.
The dedicated team of 50 cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons and interventional cardiologists at Palos perform more than 2,000 advanced cardiac procedures annually, including coronary bypass, stenting, balloon angioplasty, valve replacement and pacemaker implantation. With state-of-the-art diagnostic capabilities, treatment technologies, and post-procedure care and education, Palos can treat life-threatening cardiac conditions at the first sign of symptoms and get patients back to their lives and loved ones as quickly and safely as possible.
The road to recovery
Early the next morning, Mike woke to his dad giving him thumbs up. “That’s when I started the road to recovery.” Since then, he’s lost 30 pounds. He does cardiac rehab three days a week and works out on his own three days a week.
Dr. Camba says Mike’s prognosis is good. “The right thing he did that day was coming to the emergency room. If he would have stayed at work, he would have died. Since he was in the hospital, he survived.”
Mike has already made summer plans to ride rollercoasters with John at Cedar Point and go to the Blackhawks convention with Claire. Both are things he’s done with the children before, but this year they have even more meaning.
He says he now knows why he was given that second chance – to care for his children and to be a health advocate to others so they don’t take life for granted. He has been forthcoming about his health and shares updates through Facebook and Twitter.
“I believe you need to share your family medical experiences so people understand,” he says. “I’ve had five people tell me that if I can have a heart attack, they better get checked out, from family to coworkers to neighbors. It’s amazing how my experience can affect and help others.”
To show his gratitude to the Emergency Department staff at Palos, Mike returned on his 45th birthday with a large heart-shaped cookie. “What they did was just amazing. I know people don’t often come back and say thank you, but I had to. I could have been dead.”
Listening to warning signs
A few weeks before his heart attack, Mike had experienced excessive sweating and pain in his midsection under his ribs that radiated around to his back. He went to an urgent care center, but a full blood work up and EKG yielded normal results. It was recommended he stay to be monitored, but he chose not to do so.
He never saw himself as a candidate for a heart attack. He stays active, plays golf with his children and coaches his son’s baseball and basketball teams. He had no family history of heart disease, didn’t smoke and yearly checkups showed his cholesterol was low, but he’s learned you have to listen to your body. “Even though I thought I was in good shape, my insides weren’t.”
Dr. Camba says while family history is one of the major risk factors for heart disease – along with smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes – people don’t give enough consideration to what stress does to the body.
“It plays a huge factor in the presence of heart attacks,” he says. “Stress creates a sudden rise in blood pressure and heart rate, which can destabilize a plaque, creating the clotting that causes a heart attack.”
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women. While it doesn’t affect everyone in the same ways, if you are showing signs of a heart attack, don’t dismiss it.
“At the first sign of unexplained chest pain or shortness of breath, get to the emergency room and seek help immediately,” Dr. Camba says.
Mike now realizes how fragile life really is and how lucky he is to be alive. A coworker told him he smiles all the time now, and he does. “Life is a true gift,” he says. “Appreciate it before you almost have it taken away.”