Information technology specialist Alan Chronister knows exactly where he died: at a passenger boarding gate in a Houston, Texas airport. It was a Tuesday afternoon in October 2008, and Alan was making a flight connection on a business trip from Arkansas to Denver.
"When I got the call from the airport telling me that Alan had collapsed, I immediately assumed that was having a seizure," says Celia, Alan's wife.
Now 60 years old, Alan was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 8. For the past several years, he has been an active epilepsy advocacy team member, traveling nationwide 8-10 times a year to speak with epilepsy patients and their caregivers about the challenges of living with the syndrome.
"I've had a long time to learn to cope with my condition and I'm pretty laid back when it comes to dealing with it," says Alan. "I take anti-seizure meds and have been seizure-free since 2005. Even so, we know there is always a possibility that I might still have a tonic-clinic (grand mal) seizure -- Celia made a perfectly logical assumption when she got that call."
Upon returning to Arkansas after a stay in a Houston hospital and traveling, Celia received a long awaited message from the airport attendant who had witnessed Alan's collapse three weeks earlier. She took it to Dr. Weiss for his medical opinion about the episode.
Dr. Weiss explained that what Alan experienced in Houston was definitely not a seizure. "The message clearly described something much more serious -- SADS sudden adult death syndrome," reports Dr. Weiss. "SADS is a sudden, unexpected death caused by loss of heart function. It is not a heart attack; it occurs when the electrical system to the heart malfunctions and suddenly becomes very irregular. Death follows unless emergency treatment is begun immediately. Quick thinking and atrial defibrillation saved Alan Chronister's life."
After a thorough diagnostic cardiac work-up at the Walker Heart Institute at Washington Regional, Alan's test revealed that only 50% of Alan's heart muscle was functioning. He needed immediate cardiac bypass surgery.
"I couldn't believe it," stated his wife, Celia. "Alan just didn't fit the profile of someone with heart disease. He doesn't smoke, he exercises regularly, we maintain a healthy diet and he handles stress very well. It just didn't make sense."
"Alan's surgery was a complete success, it could not have gone any better," says Celia. "They took him to the Cardiac ICU (CICU) and I was able to be with him immediately. The CICU nurses were wonderful! I was so confident in the care that he was receiving that when Dr. Weiss urged me to go home and rest, I did just that! In fact, I went home all four nights that Alan was at Washington Regional."
Alan states, "With permission from Dr. Weiss, I started walking on the treadmill a few days after I got home and three weeks later I was up to walking two miles a day. My energy level is amazing. In hindsight, I realize how wrong I was in assuming the low energy and fatigue that I had been experiencing was part of the aging process. I had accepted the fact that being so tired that it took three days to mow the lawn, (it's 3.5 acres) was just the way it was going to be."
Alan also learned the importance of providing his physician and family members with a complete medical history. "Both my dad and his father died of heart failure at age 60, but even Celia didn't know that part of my genetic background. Everything got overshadowed by my epilepsy. If I've learned anything from this little adventure, it knowing not to blame every heath problem on epilepsy or aging."
"I feel terrific," he states, unable to suppress an enormous smile as he speaks. "And I'm deeply grateful for having been given a second chance at life. Thanks to Celia, my "airport angels" and the incredible cardiac care I received at Washington Regional, I'm happy to say that I no longer have any excuse to delay mowing the lawn!"