An SC triathlete shares his heart attack story

Robbie is one of the two percent of people who survive a "widowmaker" heart attack.

“I didn’t want to do this,” said Robbie Shipes as he stood before a conference room full of nurses, cardiologists and emergency medical technicians. “But it’s hard to say no to a person who saved your life.”

Robbie, a fit 40-something athlete with an Ironman competition under his belt, suffered a heart attack during the USC Mud Run a few years ago. It was the scariest type, the “widowmaker.” Not many people survive them - the death rate is 98 percent.

Calhoun County EMS Training Officer Crystal Youmans had asked him to tell his story at the annual Heart and Stroke Care Alliance educational forum.

Nothing can quite match the impact of a personal story delivered by someone who is only alive because providers knew exactly what to do. Especially when his family is watching from the audience.

Robbie, who entered the run with some co-workers, said the event itself hadn’t even seemed that strenuous. He never felt any pain, but at the end he started to feel like he was having an asthma type of attack. He had had some trouble breathing while exercising before and didn’t think much of it. But when inhaler hits didn’t help he collapsed.

A piece of plaque had broken loose inside Robbie’s left coronary artery. His body treated it as an injury, clotting blood around it and blocking the flow of blood to his heart.

Crystal and her team were on the Mud Run grounds that day, ready to help runners in trouble. “They were there immediately as soon as I went down. They were right there to start CPR, to shock me (twice) and get me back in rhythm and get me to the hospital in 20-something minutes.”

The EMS team had to make a quick decision to use the ambulance instead of the helicopter so they could continue interventions on route (there’s much more space to work on a patient in an ambulance).

When he came to in the intensive care unit Robbie asked, “did we finish the race?”

“I guess that was real relevant after a heart attack,” he joked.

Later he thought about what the outcome would have been if he had been trail running or cycling alone when it happened.

The Calhoun County EMS team’s collective knowledge, experience and ability to communicate effectively with each other made all the difference for Robbie that day and he and his family are grateful. They’ve all kept in touch.

Other than the occasional shortness of breath, there weren’t any medical indications that Robbie was a candidate for a heart attack. But there were some heart issues in his family history.

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Like many who have come close to death, Robbie says the experience changed the way he lives his life. He stays away from the Popeye's fried chicken he used to love, but he also shifted his priorities. He still enjoys working out, but now spends more time enjoying and nurturing the relationships he has with his family.

He had a bit of advice for his fellow outdoor adventurers and athletes. “If you feel like you can’t breathe while you’re exercising…don’t ignore it!”


Photo: Robbie Shipes (center) with Crystal Youmans (second from left) with members of the Calhoun County EMS team.