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Heart Survivor Shares Stories of Triumph and Tragedy to Raise Awareness

East Central Illinois Heart Walk Set for Feb. 28 at EIU

February 26, 2016 9:03 a.m.

Alan Alford is lucky to be alive.

Thankfully, the 59-year-old rural Ashmore man was at the right place at the right time when he suffered a massive heart attack – the Emergency Room at Sarah Bush Lincoln. “If I had been anywhere else I wouldn’t be here to tell my story,” he said.

Alford was actually on the path to healthier living prior to his near-death experience in April 2015. He had suffered a few health setbacks in recent years and joined Sarah Bush Lincoln’s Center for Healthy Living after losing a bet with his doctor to lose 10 pounds.

Gradually improving his stamina to exercise, Alford knew something was up when he became short of breath while walking at work one day. “I’d been exercising for the three previous months and I realized I hadn’t exerted myself enough to be that out of breath,” he said. However, he still wanted to go to the Center for Health Living after work with his wife, who had recently joined the program with him. “We joked with each other that at least it was closer to the Emergency Room,” he said.

Instead of exercising though, Alford was sent to Dr. Bernie Ranchero’s office, in the same building, and then to the Emergency Department. While an initial EKG came back normal, Alford’s pain started ramping up as he was being monitored in the ER. “I started experiencing crushing chest pains that radiated down my arms. My pain quickly went from a three or four to a nine or 10 with tears running down my face,” he said. Alford thought he was through the worst of it when his pain subsided after receiving several doses of nitroglycerin. “Then all of a sudden I was talking to my wife and the floor started to rotate up and my vision blurred in a tunnel-like manner,” he remembers. “And then everything went black.”

Alford later learned he was experiencing a sudden cardiac arrest. “My wife yelled for help and she told me a gentleman leapt on the table and started performing chest compressions,” he said. Then the medical team used a defibrillator from the crash cart to shock his heart back into rhythm. He was airlifted to Champaign where he underwent emergency surgery to open two blocked arteries with stents. He has made a full recovery and was back to work two months later. His wife, Karola, bought him a defibrillator for peace of mind on their wedding anniversary a few weeks later.

Alford is grateful to all of his caregivers. “I think I owe them a lot,” he said. However, he has had trouble celebrating his own triumph because of other tragedies to heart disease. Sadly, Alford’s oldest son collapsed and died of a sudden heart attack in September. He was just 37-years-old and traveling to make a career change when it happened. Prior to that, Alford lost a former co-worker as well as a long-time friend and colleague to heart attacks in June and July. “It’s been an emotional year and I’m just taking things a day at a time,” he said.

Alford hopes to raise awareness about heart disease by talking about it with others. He is the 2016 spokesperson for the East Central Illinois Heart Walk, set for Sunday, Feb. 28, at a new location. The event is being held at the Eastern Illinois University Fieldhouse, located near O’Brien Stadium, in Charleston this year for the first time. Informational booths, along with face painting for kids, will fill the Fieldhouse from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm and is open to the general public and heart walk participants. The walk will step off shortly after a brief opening ceremony at 12:30 pm.

Cardiovascular disease – including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure—is the number one killer of women and men in the United States. It is a leading cause of disability, preventing Americans from working and enjoying family activities.

Alford wants to encourage others to be proactive about preventing heart disease through diet and exercise. He continues to participate in cardiac rehab classes offered through METS (Monitored Exercise Testing Services) at Sarah Bush Lincoln. “I’ve tried to adopt many of the things they recommend in class like reducing the amount of sodium I’m taking in and reading food labels,” he said. “I actually ate cauliflower the other day and it wasn’t bad. That was new for me.” He also gave up his habit of drinking coca cola every day and has lost more than 20 pounds. “This is the longest I’ve gone without drinking a Coke in my entire life.” Alford visits Prairie Heart Institute Cardiologist Thomas Cahill, MD, for follow-up care.

While Alford still struggles with his emotions, “I feel best when I’m exercising, and going to METS helps,” he said. He also retired from his job as foreman at the Water Treatment Plant in Charleston in December and is looking forward to new adventures.

Those interested in participating in the Heart Walk can still register at the event between 11:30 am and 12:30 pm. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, call Susan Jackson at (217) 238-4784. Sarah Bush Lincoln is the signature sponsor for the Heart Walk.

For more information about Sarah Bush Lincoln METS, call (217) 258-2177. For more information about the Center for Healthy Living call (217) 238-3488.

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