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Exemplary care: Marblehead resident says responders, doctors saved life
9/16/2010
Marblehead Reporter
By Nikki Gamer

“It’s called ‘the widow-maker,’” the sandy-haired McAllister says eerily.

What McAllister is referring to is coronary-artery disease, and it almost killed him about a month ago.

McAllister says he doesn’t really remember much from that day, except that it was hot and humid, and that it started just like any other.

He was out for a mid-morning run with longtime friend and fellow resident Steve Flanagan. The two men, who have been running buddies for the last 15 years and jog together four or five times a week, were doing their usual Neck loop when things started to go awry.

“About half way through the loop, just past the Eastern Yacht Club, I told Steve, ‘I have to walk,’” McAllister remembers. “I started having chest pains.”

By the time the two got to the causeway, Flanagan knew something was seriously wrong with his friend. Not only was McAllister unable to keep running, but at that point he also could no longer walk.

“I got to the wall, and I said I couldn’t go any farther,” says McAllister. “He knew right then that I was in trouble.”

McAllister, a trim man with a runner’s build and a soft lilt to his voice, recalls the day a month later with a sort of detached amazement. The only things he knows about the day come from the recollections of others.

He was told that when he got half way down the causeway, he passed out. It was then that Flanagan took action, sprinting to get his car and driving McAllister to Devereux Beach, where he got a beach supervisor to call 911. McAllister was told a policeman was on scene within 30 seconds, and soon a medical crew was on site.

McAllister had stopped breathing. However, members of the medical crew jumpstarted his heart before sending him by ambulance to Salem’s North Shore Medical Center.

“When we left in the ambulance, Steve later told me that he thought it would be the last time he’d see me alive,” McAllister says.

Once he arrived at North Shore Medical Center, it was quickly determined that McAllister was suffering from a heart attack. A piece of plaque that had built up in one of his two main arteries had broken off during the run and was stopping blood from flowing into his heart.

“It was just about the worst blockage that you can have,” explained Dr. Ann Toran, the heart surgeon who performed triple-bypass surgery on McAllister several days later. “It’s very unusual to survive the degree and the type of blockage that he had.”

But as luck would have it, the doctor on duty at the time was able to perform a successful catheterization on McAllister, partially unblocking the artery and in turn giving him a chance at survival. A balloon pump in the meantime would keep his body functioning.

“Once the catheterization was successful, then they knew I had a chance,” McAllister explains, again with a certain degree of amazement.

McAllister was then induced into a coma to give his brain a chance to recover from the trauma. After spending several days in the intensive care unit, he was operated on.

He says that during his time in the hospital, he was overwhelmed with support from family, friends and the nursing staff. 

“I just felt so cared for,” he says, crediting the support with his survival.

Meanwhile, he says he is telling his story because he wants people in the area to know about the medical resources in their backyard. 

Coronary-artery disease is the number-one killer in the United States. Among the staggering statistics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that one in every four people died from the disease in 2006.

According to hospital spokesman Kevin Ronningen, Salem Hospital is the only comprehensive heart center on the North Shore with fully integrated cardiac services and advanced cardiac surgery.  For that reason, ambulance companies on the North Shore bring heart patients there.

Recently, Consumer Reports magazine recognized the local hospital as one of the top 50 in the country.

Toran says that McAllister’s extraordinary luck lies in the fact that all the responders did the “right thing at the right time,” from Flanagan to her surgery team. 

“Mr. McAllister owes his life to a whole group of people that all did the best for him,” she says. “Had he been somewhere where someone didn’t know what to do, he would have died.”

But it’s not like McAllister didn’t play his own part in his survival.

To many of his friends, he is one of the fittest men around. He runs in road races, lifts weights on a regular basis, doesn’t smoke, eats a healthy diet and keeps himself in good working health. To many, he seemed like the least likely candidate to drop dead of a heart attack.

However, Toran says that the one thing that McAllister might have overlooked in the past is his family history.

“It goes to show that even if you take very good care of yourself, if you have a first-degree relative who has a heart attack at an early age, that’s as important a risk factor for you developing heart disease as a smoking history or obesity,” she says.

Toran says that it’s because of his general state of good health that he had a better a chance of making it through heart surgery.

“His heart was still in good shape,” she noted. “He did terrifically well after the surgery.”

She added, “Everything that happened to him before he came into the hospital and the fact that he personally was in such good shape really made things all turnout as well as they could. Everything that [could have] happened right, happened right.”

At the moment, the indefatigable McAllister is already back at work and has started exercising again by walking three days a week. He says he’ll eventually get back to running despite what transpired.

“It’s a crapshoot. No matter how you look at it, if you are going to stop doing what you love just because you are scared, that’s a hell of a way to go through life,” he says.

As for how he’s coping with his near-death experience, he says he hasn’t really started to confront all the emotions that come with facing down death.

“I’m still dealing with the fact that I was lucky enough to make it,” he says before adding, “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to continue to support my family and to appreciate the friendships I have.”

He calls Dr. Toran “dynamic”; in fact, wife Mary remembers her walking into the room after McAllister’s surgery surrounded by a bright light she equated to a halo.

“I want people to know what a tremendous resource they have in the North Shore Hospital,” McAllister says. “I was very lucky.”

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