I survived the widowmaker heart attack
Published Monday, March 1, 2021
Frank Rizzuto was only 40 when he had a `widowmaker` heart attack. Despite a tough year afterwards, Frank is grateful for the care he received, both in Thunder Bay and Southern Ontario. He is excited for the future when cardiac surgery will be available closer to home.
Frank Rizzuto’s cardiac journey
By Heather Vita
It was Family Day weekend in 2017. A Monday night around 9 p.m. Frank Rizzuto and his father were downstairs watching the Vikings game. As he said, “I can recall it like it was yesterday.”
It was less than two months after his 40th birthday and the uneasiness and pain came on out of the blue. “I thought I might be having panic attacks,” he said. “I was just trying to breathe through the pain that would come up from my knees to my shoulders. I’d clamp up into a ball and try to wait it out.”
He ended up taking some Robaxacet the next morning when he was still experiencing back pain and called in sick to work. “I never call in sick,” he emphasized. Finally after laying on the kitchen floor, he called his wife Mel, who came home from work and took him to the Hospital. By then, it was close to 3 p.m.
“When I got to the Hospital they immediately gave me Aspirin. Because I have a history of a bicuspid aortic valve, they were concerned that I might have a dissected aorta and it was shown that I had a possible tear when I had my C.T. scan. Immediately my family was called in to say goodbye because this was life-threatening and I had to be flown to Hamilton for any chance of having it repaired,” he recalled. “That was pretty terrifying.”
Once in Hamilton, it was determined that Frank did not have a dissected aorta, but instead that he had had a heart attack due to a completely blocked left anterior descending artery (aka the artery that brings fresh blood and oxygen to the heart). If blocked, as it was in Frank’s case, the heart can stop very quickly, which is why this type of heart attack is often called ‘the widowmaker’. He ended up staying in Hamilton for about a week, before being able to return home.
In May 2017, Frank was able to return to work, and also started in the cardiac rehabilitation program in Thunder Bay. “Ironically, my father-in-law, who’d had a quadruple bypass in January of 2017, was also in rehab with me,” said Frank. “Thankfully, for whatever reason, he skipped a day in June, which was good because I went into full cardiac arrest when I was on the rower. The team at the rehab program went into action right away and they saved my life.”
Frank was, once again, flown to Hamilton where an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) was put in his chest to help regulate his heart rhythm. In the following six months, he was going into heart failure every six to eight weeks and the medications he was taking were making him sick. “It took about an entire year to get my meds settled,” he said.
Back to Hamilton went Frank again – this time for an ablation consult, but he was told it would be several years before he could have it done due to a waiting list. He returned to Thunder Bay and met with Dr. Nigro who informed him his left ventricle was about 60% scar tissue and that he had congestive heart failure. Because of this, he was sent to the London Hospital in late November 2017, where he underwent about a week’s worth of testing. His ICD fired while at the Hospital in December 2017 and he ended up having his cardiac ablation done in January 2018. Altogether he was away for two months.
“The first year, I was really mad,” he recalled. “I mean, I had everything taken away from me overnight. And I had so many procedures, and my meds made me feel so sick. However, I have chosen, since then, to focus on the positive.”
Following his time in London, Frank re-joined the cardiac rehab program, which he completed twice. “I liked it so much I volunteer there now,” he laughed. “Well, I did until COVID hit. I remember how scared I was to do the program, because it made me realize that I’m not invincible. So now I like to welcome the new people and help them feel at ease, and make sure they know they’re not alone. It’s a lot of fun there. We crack jokes, I dance – it’s important to be able to smile again.”
“I lived through a really awful heart attack at a fairly young age and I’m happy to still be alive,” he said. “I can still recall so many of the people that helped me get through this journey – especially the Nurses – both here and in other cities. They were amazing. I would throw down my hat to them anytime.”
The one thing he thinks about, but doesn’t dwell on, is how his journey and the outcome might have been different had Thunder Bay had cardiac surgery when he had his heart attack. “I was sent to Hamilton because it was believed I had a dissected aorta, although it wasn’t confirmed. If we’d had cardiac surgery here, they could have taken me up to the Cath Lab to look at my heart, and they would have found the blockage right away, and potentially been able to save a good portion of my left ventricle. But they couldn’t take the chance that my aorta might go at any time. If we’d had surgery, that backup would have been available and I would never have had to leave. I’m not bitter and I know my team made the right decision for me. But I do think about future patients and I’m grateful to know they will have access to the care here that I so desperately needed.”
Our community will soon have full access to cardiac surgery, meaning people like Frank can have life-saving care here at home. The Our Hearts At Home Cardiovascular Campaign is raising funds to make this a reality. Donations are gratefully accept to fund the specialized medical equipment needed for cardiac surgery.
Phone: (807) 345-4673