‘I could’ve gone into cardiac arrest at any moment’ – former English teacher has ‘real deal’ heart attack

(Photo used by permission of Bell)
Retired English teacher Ron Bell and his grandson, Theodore, two days before his heart attack.

Q: Is this the first heart attack you’ve had?

A: I’ve never had a heart attack before and had no warning, but there were subtle long-term symptoms of heart disease.


Q: What happened prior to your heart attack?

A: I woke up on March 28 with a severe pain in my chest. I didn’t have all of the usual symptoms (of a heart attack) – like sweating, nausea or shooting pain in my arm – just a big pain filling my chest from sternum to spine.

For a long time – probably several years – I’d had symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue (and) mild chest pain during exercise, and low blood oxygen. I attributed these to lung problems, but they probably indicated that my heart wasn’t getting enough oxygen.


Q: Did anything specific cause your heart attack?

A: Impossible to know. Sometimes loose chunks of plaque float around and get stuck in a narrowed artery; then, maybe, inflammation causes a blood clot, and more junk collects until there’s a blockage. There are risk factors – like smoking, eating too much saturated fat, high cholesterol, diabetes, lack of exercise – but those don’t lead to simple cause-and-effect outcomes.

The comedian George Burns chain-smoked for 80 years and died at 100. A cousin of mine was a competitive endurance athlete, a cyclist, never smoked, and died of a heart attack at 57. We speculate, but they’re just stories.


Q: Did you know you were having a heart attack when it happened?

A: At first because a few other things can cause chest pain. I knew I might be having a heart attack, so I immediately ate some aspirin. (The doctors were relieved to hear I’d done this. Aspirin is a blood thinner and helps dissolve clots.) I went back to bed (to) see if the pain would dissipate. I didn’t want to wake my wife, who’d been sick and hadn’t slept well.


Q: What did you do when you figured out you were having a heart attack?

A: I woke (my wife) Joanne up, and she drove me to the hospital. I learned we shouldn’t have done this, that if you suspect a heart attack you should call 911 and get EMTs on scene because, of course, I could’ve gone into cardiac arrest at any moment.


Q: What was your reaction to this?

A: I was perfectly calm. I certainly knew there was a chance I’d die, but I don’t believe in worrying about what I can’t control. I had good reason to think the medical team knew what they were doing. I just quietly let them do their job.

I could tell they were concerned I might not survive because of things they were saying to each other, but that didn’t disturb me particularly. I only learned about the severity of the incident later. As the cardiologist put it, I’d had a “real deal” heart attack; my ICU nurse kept saying, “You’re still alive – God must have a plan for you!”  

She said that about 20 times, at least.


Q: How were you treated at the hospital?

A: At the Woodland Memorial Emergency Room, they hooked me up to an EKG, determined that I was having a heart attack; they pumped me full of heparin (a blood thinner) and rushed me to the Sutter Health hospital in Sacramento. I underwent angioplasty and had a stent put in. They put a catheter into my artery, inserted through my groin and going into my heart; they used a little balloon device to force the blockage open. Then they put a metal lining in that spot to keep it open.

Bypass surgery is rarely done anymore, except in extreme cases, when someone has multiple blockages. In my case, the other arteries were fine. The angioplasty procedure is faster and less physically traumatic.


Q: Has anything like this happened to you before?

A: I’ve only been hospitalized a few times in my life, and not in many years. I’ve never had surgery, ever, even minor surgery. I’m not used to a lot of medical intervention.

—By Elise Sommerhaug

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