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Heart Attack Survivor Shares Story to Raise Awareness

East Central Illinois Heart Walk Set for Feb. 9

February 3, 2014 11:02 a.m.

At 64-years-old, Robert Riggert considers himself one of the lucky ones. He survived a heart attack that few people do.

It’s commonly referred to as the “widow maker” because of its high and immediate sudden death probability as a result of blockage in the left anterior descending artery. Such a heart attack kills more than 80 percent of everyone it strikes.

Defying the odds, Riggert said he thinks about it everyday. “There was really no warning,” he said. “It was a normal day.” It wasn’t until after Riggert returned home from work to eat dinner and relax that he began to experience severe pain in his chest and shoulders.

“I got up and tried to stretch it out at first,” the Mattoon man said, taking a couple of aspirin and returning to the couch to watch television. However, the pain only intensified. Moments from calling 911, his wife, Susan, pulled into the driveway and rushed him to the Emergency Room at Sarah Bush Lincoln.

“She just reacted and she ran all the traffic lights to get me there as quickly as possible,” he said. By that time, the pain was paralyzing and he passed out. “I just remember waking up and looking at a doctor who told me my heart had stopped,” Riggert said. In cardiac arrest, his heart had to be shocked several times to get it beating.

Once stabilized, he was flown by helicopter to St. John’s Hospital in Springfield where doctors immediately placed a stent in the blocked artery that caused the heart attack. Suffering damage to his heart, Riggert was released from the hospital a few days later with a LifeVest, a lightweight wearable defibrillator that monitors your heart 24/7.

Now, Riggert works everyday to make healthy choices and his heart stronger. “One of the first things I did is order several heart healthy cookbooks,” he said. He also joined cardiac rehabilitation classes offered through Monitored Exercise Testing Services (METS) at Sarah Bush Lincoln. By making changes in his diet and exercising, Riggert improved his heart efficiency enough to stop wearing the LifeVest and avoid the need for an implanted defibrillator after three months. He has also lost more than 40 pounds.

Riggert hopes to raise awareness about heart disease by talking about it with others. He’s the 2014 spokesperson for the East Central Illinois Heart Walk set for Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Cross County Mall, Mattoon. A health fair will fill the mall concourse from noon to 2 pm and is open to the general public and heart walk participants. The walk will step off at 1:20 pm following a brief opening ceremony. Bub McCullough, WMCI, is serving as master of ceremonies.

Riggert wants people to know that a heart attack can sneak up on anyone. “If I have a message to share it’s don’t think it can’t happen to you,” he said. With no prior history of heart disease, “I always thought I was in fairly good condition,” Riggert said, though he admits he never paid attention to his diet and never exercised. While he had never been in the hospital before, he did have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and he was overweight.

He recently graduated from Phase II METS, which is designed for people who have had a heart attack or heart surgery, balloon angioplasty or other heart-related problems, though he continues to participate in the program three times a week to maintain a regular exercise schedule. “It’s a great program. It has helped me tremendously” Riggert said, “The education is a big part of the program. It’s interesting – never boring – and the hour goes by very quickly.”

Riggert said he is determined to do everything in his power to avoid having another heart event. “I was very close to not being here. I’m getting my life back and I’m going to enjoy it,” he said. He is back to work as manager of shop operations at General Electric, where he has worked for 44 years.

“I feel better and it’s fun for people to tell me my pants are too baggy,” he said. “I was surprised how easy it really was to lose weight. I’m still eating good tasting food and I haven’t felt starved.” However, he admits that going to a low-salt diet has been the hardest part, he said. “I read the labels at the grocery store now, which is something I never did before.”

At the same time, Riggert said he realizes his heart efficiency is not where it was before the heart attack and that he may never be the same. He sees what mistakes he used to make that could have very easily cost him his life and he hopes to help others avoid them and to create greater awareness of heart disease.

Those interested in participating in the Heart Walk can still register at the event between noon and 1 pm. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, call Sharon Jackson at 258-4181. Sarah Bush Lincoln is the signature sponsor for the Heart Walk. For more information about Sarah Bush Lincoln METS, call (217) 258-2177

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