A New Normal for Heart Attack Survivor
Jeff Veltkamp has lived a life full of adventurous experiences – from riding horses in the back country of Montana, coming face to face with a grizzly bear, to scaling a mountain peak and cutting through sand dunes on his motorcycle.
Healthy, active and fit, he didn’t expect that a 100-percent blockage in his “widow maker” left coronary artery would threaten his life at age 42. Having a strong family history of heart disease, he thought he might face it someday – although perhaps not so dramatically at such a young age.
Veltkamp ran track and cross country, both in high school and as a college student at the University of Sioux Falls. When that became hard on his knees, he transitioned into biking. “I developed a love for being out in the middle of nowhere on the open road. It’s an amazing way to see the state of South Dakota.”
He was training for the South Dakota RASDak Ride Across South Dakota when he left his spin class not feeling quite right. “I had been wanting to get in a good workout and was pushing really hard.”
Arriving at home, he felt so warm that he tried lying on the driveway to cool off. A call to Avera’s Ask a Nurse spurred him to head to the emergency room.
Although he and his wife Mindy live closer to the Avera Heart Hospital, they headed to Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center. “I didn’t think it was a heart attack. My fingertips were going numb, but the pain wasn’t overly intense,” Veltkamp said. However, Mindy had wisely grabbed some aspirin for her husband to chew on the way over.
“When we got there, I remember leaning on the counter, saying I’m not doing very well. I felt like life was slipping away from me,” Veltkamp said.
Tests indicated that he was indeed having a heart attack. It was a welcome surprise to see Alan Sazama, MD, as his emergency physician. Dr. Sazama had been a student at USF when Veltkamp worked there.
At that point, Veltkamp felt a sense of peace that he was in good hands. “As a person of faith, I know where I’m going. I knew that the doctors could either take care of it, or I would go to meet my savior. Either way, it’s a good day.”
Jeremy Scott, MD, cardiologist with North Central Heart Institute and the Avera Heart Hospital, happened to be at Avera McKennan that day, and could quickly get Veltkamp into the catheterization lab for a procedure to unblock his artery and place a stent to minimize the damage to his heart.
As he recovered, Veltkamp got two types of texts from friends. They either said something like, “Holy cow, you are the healthy one. What’s going to happen to the rest of us!” Or, “Why should I do all that fitness stuff, if someone as healthy as you had a heart attack anyway.”
Yet Veltkamp’s fitness activities likely saved his life rather than causing his heart attack. His provider at the North Central Heart, Stephanie Kirkpatrick, CNP, told him he probably wouldn’t have made it to the ER had he not been at a good fitness level.
Veltkamp was healthy before his heart attack. Yet he adopted a new normal to help him regain heart function and prevent future events. This included going through cardiac rehab at the Avera Heart Hospital, and changing his diet to incorporate components of the Mediterranean diet, healthier choices and portion control.
Veltkamp is director of development for the South Dakota Community Foundation. He’s back to an active lifestyle that includes biking.
His advice to others includes paying attention to what your body is telling you. If something doesn’t feel right, get checked out. And get regular preventive care with a provider you trust.
“In hindsight, I look at this event as a blessing. I met some wonderful people along the way, from the doctors and nurses to the team in cardiac rehab. It was a great way to focus on what’s important in life and what is not,” Veltkamp said.